FeaturedNationalVolume 13 Issue # 03

Making the census controversial

After a delay of nine years, Pakistan has been able to carry out a population census but, as expected, controversies have emerged about the figures of the population strength of different provinces and regions. Although only preliminary figures have been released thus far, but unofficially a lot of information and data regarding the population of the country and the provinces and regions have been reported by the national media. The figures have become somewhat controversial after certain national-level, as well as small ethno-linguistic, parties in different provinces have “rejected” the results of the census. These parties maintain that the population strength of their respective regions have been understated and deliberately shown less than what was projected.

Questions on the census data have been raised by the main opposition party the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which also has its government in Sindh province. Another very important political party of Sindh, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) has also rejected the figures of the census, terming them fudged. A key opposition party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which has its government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, although not rejecting the census results, has questioned the conduct of the process of census taking. However, ethno-linguistic groups of KP, including the Awami National Party (ANP) and Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) of Aftab Sherpao have totally rejected the census data. These parties have also raised serious questions on the census figures for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Even the PTI chapter in FATA has dismissed the results of the census data for the region and has also vowed to agitate against it. Parliamentarians from FATA led by Nasir Afridi, member of the National Assembly, have serious doubts regarding the population strength of FATA, as shown by the recently conducted census. Nationalist parties of Balochistan, including the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) have also rejected the census figures.

Controversies and doubts about the population census once it was completed and its results revealed, were very much expected. In particular, it was anticipated that the ethno-linguistic groups would raise serious objections to the figures. Against this backdrop, the reservations of the PPP may seem strange, but are quite understandable because, to all intents and purposes, the PPP is now a party which is limited to the Sindh province and it has become a tribune for the Sindhi population of the province. So vehement is criticism of the PPP on the census result, that Sindh government spokesman and Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Nisar Ahmad Khuhro, in his policy statement, termed showing a lesser population [than projected] in the province a “conspiracy” by the federal government against Sindh. This is a serious matter for the federation of Pakistan and must be looked into.

In fact, it was the PPP-ANP coalition government which failed to carry out a census during its five year tenure (2008-2013). Conducting a census has been quite difficult admittedly, due to the adverse security situation in the country, mainly due to terrorism and militancy led by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) since 2007. However, being a constitutional requirement to conduct a census after every 10 years, the PPP-ANP government should have conducted it during its tenure, when it was due in 2008. But the party opted not to do so. Now raising objections on the census does not make sense and it seems it is more for political point scoring rather than for purposes of genuine rectification.

This does not mean that the process and figures of the recently held population census in the country was foolproof and completely transparent. There must have been many weaknesses in the process and data of the census, but this could only be pointed out by statisticians and demographers. Only time would tell how valid and reliable has been the conduct and outcome of the census. There is another very important aspect of the above-mentioned parties’ and groups’ objection to the census data. While these parties may have reservations on the census figures for their respective provinces and regions, they do not have any reply to the question that on what grounds can they claim their provinces and regions have more population than what has been counted by the government. Moreover, these parties do not have the technical expertise, financial and human resources that they could carry out even a sample data collection in their respective provinces and regions and upon which basis they could argue that their population has been understated. Just to make statements that the population census figures have been manipulated and fudged would not make any difference. This would merely make the whole process and outcome of census controversial without addressing the situation on the groung.

Reportedly, some international agencies, including subsidiary organizations of the United Nations, have criticized the involvement of personnel from the armed forces in the census process and data collection. This criticism is unwarranted, as ground realities in Pakistan require the involvement of armed forces in such a huge national exercise as a nation-wide census. The civilian state agencies and institutions have a lot of capacity issues and at this point in time criticizing the role of the armed forces in national a exercises like the census seems to be based on bad faith. The UN and other international organizations’ criticism in this regard must have been based on information fed to them by ethno-linguistic groups which look at every positive step in the country with a jaundiced eye and assume it to be calculated at their expense.

The crux of the controversy over the population census process and data collection from different parties and groups is based on the issue of allocation of financial resources or National Finance Commission (NFC) award. In Pakistan, the national resources (Federal Divisible Pool) is nearly totally distributed on the basis of population. Thus, bigger the population, the greater the share for provinces and regions and a huge political issue for provincial parties. The Sindh Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Nisar Khuhro argued that showing a reduced population for Sindh was a calculated move by the federal government, which had conspired against Sindh to deprive it of its increased share in the divisible pool on the basis of the census, in the National Finance Commission Award.

It is quite possible that there may be some discrepancies in the census results. Surely then, the way to proceed to correct flaws, would be to produce viable opposing data. However, as always, Pakistan’s political parties to further their vested interests, play politics with national issues. How detrimental this process has been to the country is evident from the adverse circumstances that prevail within the state.