In a surprise development on Sunday, the government announced the holding of a long overdue census. This census, if not postponed, will be conducted after a gap of nearly 20 years. In the past, political and other compulsions have forced successive governments to postponing this vital exercise. Today we cannot tell for sure how many Pakistanis there are – let alone what their age, sex or location is.
But it now seems that the Sharif government means business. What is interesting is that the census will start from March 15, which is a few days away. Do we have enough time? Are we prepared for the exercise we are about to undertake?
This will be Pakistan’s sixth housing and population census and it will continue till May 25. Needless to say, this head-counting will have far-reaching implications for both resource distribution as well as political representation in the country.
The army will take part. It is believed that this will help maintain some order in what is otherwise a confusing and logistically near-impossible exercise.
Mindful of the task ahead, state minister of information Merriyum Aurangzeb has said that the census will be conducted in two phases, with the first phase stretching from March 15 to April 15, followed by a 10 day break, after which the second phase will go on until May 25. Over 200,000 troops will be involved in the counting.
The good news is that this time the census will include disabled people under a separate count and also count transgenders – till now not counted in any census.
The challenge of course will be to ensure that not only do people report correctly but that those who are collecting the information do so in a clear and transparent manner. Various countries have devised different ways to counter bias and mis-declaration: in one instance, people were expected to stand outside their houses at a certain time on a certain day and pictures were taken by satellite to ensure accuracy.
We are expecting a number of surprises when the results come in. For example, male to female ratio in the country. More important, how many people are under 25. It is believed that Pakistan has one of the largest population of under-25s. One would be interested to also know the urban-rural divide. The ratio, it is believed, has tilted in favour of urban areas as millions have migrated to cities over the years.
Pakistan’s cities will be another area of interest. While Karachi may remain the country’s largest and Lahore the second, will it be Faisalabad or Hyderabad which will be the third largest city in Pakistan? How many towns have turned into cities? The biggest question, of course, will be which is Pakistan’s second most populous province and in what order do the others follow?
Another tricky question relates to Balochistan where there is a controversy over which ethnic group is larger in number.
A census is important for a number of reasons. To begin with, we will have to see how resource allocation will change. The share that the federal government gives to each province depends on the number of people that live in that province. That is expected to change.
Then there is the issue of government jobs. With the controversial quota system in place, one province has managed to reap most of the government jobs in the country over the past five decades. If a proper census is conducted, this will also change.
And then there is the issue of political representation. Over the years, with population shifts, it is believed that electoral constituencies need to be redrawn. Smaller provinces will need to have more representation at the centre. And this will only be possible if an accurate count is done.
Census are interesting times. In some countries, the movement of people is restricted when counting is done in their areas. In others we have seen governments restricting the entry and exit of people from the country.
In the case of Pakistan, another issue will be the large number of refugees and undocumented persons. It is hoped some system is in place to count them as well. In conclusion, the coming months will be an interesting time for Pakistan. Finally we may be able to know how our country has changed in terms of its people.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 13th, 2017.