It seems that in Balochistan nothing involving an official count or survey of the population, whether it be a general election, the election of a local body, or a census, can ever occur without controversy. It is widely assumed that this is because everything in the province is controlled by Baloch tribal chieftains and the common people are simply naïve about the benefits of a census. I would argue, to the contrary, that every sane mind in the province agrees that a census is an important measure and will have a profound impact on federal funding for everything from education and health care to infrastructure. There is also general agreement that an official, legitimate census should be carried out every eight to ten years under the Constitution.
On March 15, 2017, a national census of the population was begun in parts of Pakistan. This was the first census to be conducted in almost two decades, the last one having occurred in 1998. Baloch political parties, however, are unhappy with the way the census is being carried out in their province.
Nationalists have opposed a population census in the province for years, fearing that untrained officials would count the millions of illegal Afghan immigrants living in the province after fleeing war in their home country. According to a rough estimate, over three million Afghan nationals have entered Balochistan since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Initially Balochistan wholeheartedly welcomed their Afghan brothers, most of whom preferred to reside in seven Afghan-dominated districts. However, significant numbers eventually moved into the interior, where they felt comfortable with people who had been their neighbours for centuries and with whom they shared similar societal and cultural norms.
Amidst growing fears that a census might lead to Pashtun claims of equal or majority population in Balochistan, a gathering of Baloch political parties was held in Quetta on January 27th, 2017. At this gathering the participants raised serious concerns about the census, and in particular about its ramifications for the province. Three demands emerged from this gathering: that the census not be held until the repatriation of Afghan refugees; that it be delayed in areas where the Baloch had been internally displaced as a result of Baloch militancy; and that tribal elders be involved in conducting the census. The participation of tribal elders would be a huge help since the province is a largely tribal society where people know one another and are wary of outsiders.
Balochistan is the country’s least developed and least populous province but it constitutes half the country’s landmass. The confession and subsequent conviction of a number of senior National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) officials on charges that they issued thousands of computerised national identity cards to illegal Afghan immigrants in exchange for bribes legitimises the concern of Baloch politicians about the potential illegitimacy of the census.
Despite law and order problems in certain areas and the legitimate concerns of the nationalists, the federal government determined that Balochistan should be the first place to launch the census. This demonstrates clearly just how much heed the federal government pays to the opinions of Baloch parliamentarians and leaders. The only party publicly backing the census and the issuing of national identity cards to Afghans is the Pashtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), led by Mehmood Khan Achakzai. Clearly, Achakzai’s concern is not for the pain and suffering endured by Afghans during a brutal war but for the vote bank they represent, one that is growing larger by the day.
In 2014, a senior police officer in Quetta told this columnist that he was being pressured by a PkMAP minister to give clearance to 16,000 applications from illegal Afghan immigrants for Pakistani identity cards. Certain elements are clearly trying to exploit poor, war-weary Afghans who are barely eking out a living in Balochistan. According to a UN report, 52.2 % of children under five years old in the province are chronically malnourished or stunted. In addition, significant numbers of pregnant women die in labour due to a lack of trained gynaecologists, and over 60 per cent of children are out of school.
What this situation really demands is a well thought out plan for conducting the census in Balochistan. Had the government in Islamabad been paying any attention at all to the concerns of the political parties in the province, it would have realised that Balochistan would have benefited from being the last province to be counted rather than the first.
Logically, a vast expanse of land, sparsely populated but rich in untapped resources, should yield benefits for the native population. Sadly, the small population size and the richness and exploitability of the province’s resources lie at the heart of Balochistan’s problems.
The influx of Afghan refugees and the internally displaced Baloch population, would definitely have a major impact on the credibility of the census, making it potentially unacceptable to even those nationalists who believe in the Federation of Pakistan. UNHCR, the organisation charged with the smooth and voluntary repatriation of refugees from Afghanistan, lost a great deal of credibility after many Afghan families re-entered Balochistan following the failure of paramilitary troops to strictly protect the areas bordering Afghanistan.
The federal government needs to investigate the sudden spike in population in Pashtun-dominated districts like Killa Abdullah, Killa Saifullah and Zhob, areas where the population has risen by more than 100 per cent.
There is a clear division in Balochistan between the Baloch-populated areas and those dominated by Pashtun and other ethnic groups. One hopes that Pashtun and Baloch leaders will be able to sit down together to resolve the issue amicably. Decisions on demographic boundaries will be aided by examination of historical evidence such as the burial sites of many Baloch elders.
Perhaps it is time for the Pashtun-dominated areas of Balochistan to merge with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or for the tribal areas to form a separate province. This would greatly reduce the risk of confrontation, since the people have lived as neighbours for centuries. It would also persuade Baloch nationalists to support the census and help with its implementation.
I wish Balochistan was developed and economically stable enough to provide better opportunities for those fleeing war-torn Afghanistan. At present that is a pipe dream; people in the province are themselves in desperate need of basic infrastructure, healthcare, education and jobs. In a land where people are already suffering, more refugees and economic migrants could easily trigger a civil war.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 31st, 2017.