At long last it seems the unduly delayed census is going to be held. The decision to go ahead with the national head count after the Supreme Court took suo motu notice of the isuue and ordered the government to carry out the decennial exercise that should have been conducted long ago. The Council of Common Interests in its meeting last week gave the green signal for the census to start from March 15, 2017. The CCI, which brings together the federal government and provincial leaderships for consensus decisions on issues of national importance, has directed that both the housing count and population census would be carried out in one go. The census will be conducted in two phases, each simultaneously in all the provinces and in close co-ordination with the respective provincial governments. Special steps have also been devised to overcome the operational difficulties in the way of the proposed exercise. The house listing will begin March 15, 2017, and be completed in 30 days. This will be followed by the census operation that will also be completed in 30 days. A total of 207,000 personnel will be involved, including 42,000 from the armed forces, to provide security throughout the exercise.
The decision has not come a day too soon. As per law, the national census should have been held in 2008, but it was put off for a long eight years for one reason or another. The government wanted the armed forces to conduct the exercise but the army said it was not in a position to provide over 300,000 troops needed for the purpose since they were engaged in Operation Zarb-e-Azb. On their part, the provinces claimed they are not logistically ready to hold a census. There were other concerns as well. Punjab and Sindh wanted the census postponed for as long as possible since any fresh head count is bound to throw up new figures showing Karachi’s population having increased as compared to the rest of the country since the last census in 1998. This may result in Punjab losing seats to Karachi at the national level and rural Sindh at the provincial level. Balochistan and Sindh also want Afghan refugees to be repatriated or not counted in the census because they apprehend that the presence of large numbers of Afghan migrants and refugees could skew the ethnic make-up of their constituencies.
The importance of a national census every ten years cannot be overemphasized. The national head count provides crucial data relating to the demographic changes in a country and helps in future socio-economic planning and a more judicious distribution of the country’s resources among federating units. Conducted at regular intervals, a census allows governments, businesses and other organizations to take stock of the socio-economic conditions for informed decision making. Without authentic census data, economic planning lacks a sound basis. A census provides basic data on demographic, social and economic variables about each person and each housing unit. It thus serves as a benchmark for all development plans, administrative decisions and actions, and demographic research and projection to meet future needs. The federal government also gives a share in taxes to provincial governments under the NFC award on the basis of the census figures. Developed countries attach great importance to the national census, and they hold it regularly, come what may. The example of Japan in this connection is educative. The last census held in Japan showed that the population of the country has dropped by one million over the past decade. The census results also showed that there was a sharp drop in the working population and a concomitant rise in the number of elderly people that would result in higher health costs. Thus alerted, Tokyo immediately set about taking necessary remedial measures.
The first census in Pakistan after independence was held in 1951. The second census was conducted in 1961, followed by the third in 1972. The fourth census was held on time in 1981 but then the trouble started and the fifth was held in 1998 after a delay of seven years. The sixth census was due in 2008 but it was delayed for political reasons. In 2010, the ruling PPP government decided to hold the census in 2011 and, as a step towards it, a house count was completed. But population census was delayed under one pretext or other. On coming to power, the PML-N government had decided to conduct the census in March 2016, with the help of the armed forces, but the matter was again shelved.
Since the census will be held eight years late, it is vital that it be completed before the general elections of 2018. For this, it is necessary that all preparatory arrangements are put in place with alacrity during the next two months. The census-takers should be provided comprehensive training to help people fill out forms which will need to be printed in sufficient numbers well in time. In view of the importance of the coming nationwide exercise, a high powered task force should be set up immediately to tie up all the loose ends before the target date in March.