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Eighteen Years and Still Counting
By: Ather Naqvi
It should be a serious cause of concern for our political leaders and policy makers that since 1998, no government in Pakistan — civilian or military — has been able to hold a census, which is critical for determining not just the provinces’ share in the federal divisible pool but also allocating money for long-term planning and development and the electoral make-up of the country.

According to Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), the first census in Pakistan was conducted in 1951, the second in 1961, and the third in 1972, instead of 1971 due to political instability in the country. The fourth census was held in 1981 and the fifth one, which was due in 1991, was held in 1998.

Scheduled for 2008, the sixth census has still not been held and delayed once again. “Census has been delayed because it is a political issue,” says Dr Pervez Tahir, former Chief Economist, government of Pakistan. “But it is not an issue that cannot be resolved,” he believes. “To hold a census may be a political matter but census itself is also a socio-economic exercise. It is not a good idea to ignore issues that involve the people.”

Tahir suggests that issues of security and Afghan refugees, etc, should not be a cause to delay census, which must be carried out as soon as possible. “The federal government can give a timeframe to the provinces to address at least some of their issues before holding census.”

“For example, the next NFC criteria, which mainly counts population as the basis of distribution of resources, should remain what it is for the upcoming NFC Award. It can be changed afterwards though for subsequent NFC awards according to the latest census data.” He has not lost all hope, “the last census in 1998 was held by the PML-N government. So why not now?”

Commenting on the security issue, he suggests that census should be held in areas where security is not an issue. “Punjab should do it and other provinces would follow, in the same way as provinces were once not interested in imposing sales tax on services but when Sindh imposed it, other provinces followed suit.”

There is distrust not just between the federal government and the provinces but within the provinces also. Abid Qaiyum Suleri, social policy analyst and executive director, Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), agrees with Dr Pervez Tahir when he says that “Ethnic-based politics is also responsible for the delay in carrying out this extremely important exercise.”
“In Sindh, for example, the shifting balance of population in favour of the urban-based Urdu-Speaking people and Sindhi-speaking population in rural areas has caused the political leaders to be disinterested in the exercise,” he maintains.

“Similar is the case in Balochistan where the Baloch think the Pashtun population will eat away their resources that should only be given to them. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, you have the Afghan refugees which the Pashtuns think would consume what is their. There is also a controversy over the number of Seraikis in the south of Punjab,” he says. “I think the federal government should have taken this issue to the Council of Common Interests (CCI) long ago,” he adds.

Dr Hafiz A Pasha, senior economist, lays stress on the fact that population census determines a lot of important things, such as allocation of NA seats and distribution of resources, etc. “Issues that may have delayed holding a census vary from province to province. In Punjab, for instance, it is estimated that the province’s share in the NFC Award could decrease by 2-3 percentage points because the population growth rate has increased in other provinces. In Sindh, the share of urban population may have increased as compared to the rural population,” he says.
“In a way, for one reason or the other, no province seems to show an interest in holding census at the moment,” he believes. “We have both pluses and minuses of holding a census. Balochistan and KP, for example, may hope to have an increase in their share if the census is held,” he concludes.

Renowned political analyst, Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, says it is not just government’s lack of political will, “We also have weak institutional capacity. That is also one of the main reasons we have not been able to hold census. The question is, is it the job of the army to hold census? It was undertaken under the army’s security in 1998 too,” he says.
“In India, they have, more or less, completely followed their timeframe since 1951. But in Pakistan, it seems unlikely that we would be able to hold census this year too,” he laments.

“We are stuck in political issues like if the Sindh’s urban population has increased that means NA seats in urban areas would also increase to the advantage of Urdu-speaking political parties but to the disadvantage to the rural Sindh politicians. In the civil services in Sindh, quotas are divided on rural and urban basis. If census is held and it is proved that the urban population in Sindh has increased there would be a demand for increase of urban seats in civil services quota too,” says Rizvi.

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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.