Census in Pakistan, Headcount and its importance for effective governance

Census in Pakistan

Conducting an accurate, reliable census is inevitable for a country to effectively plan growth, deliver services and solve the problems of the citizenry. A population census is a regular counting of the number of men, women, children—able and disabled—in a country by the government for better economic planning and achieving the goal of development thereupon. All sane parents know that timely and regular measurement of height and weight of their kids is crucial to their physical and mental growth. A national census is, perhaps, no different as far as its objectives are concerned.

Conducting a population census after every 10 years is a constitutional obligation under Article 51(5) of the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973, which reads: “The seats in the National Assembly shall be allocated to each Province, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Federal Capital on the basis of population in accordance with the last preceding census officially published.” And, as per a Supreme Court observation, population census is a constitutional requirement. As regards the history of censuses in Pakistan, the first one in the areas now comprising Pakistan was held in 1881. After Independence, the first census was held in 1951; the second in 1961 while the third in 1972 instead of 1971 due to the political situation and war with India. The fourth census was conducted in March 1981 and the fifth one which was due in 1991 could be held in March 1998.

According to the 1951 census, dominion of Pakistan (both East and West Pakistan) had a population of 75 million, with majority living in West Pakistan—33.7 million—while East Pakistan was home to 42 million people. The 1961 census results showed that Pakistan had a population of 93 million—West Pakistan 42.8 million and East Pakistan 50.2 million. The third census was carried out in 1972 instead of 1971 due to the anarchic situation of the country and war with India. In 1972 census, the total population of Pakistan, as the East Pakistan had become an independent country Bangladesh, stood at 65.3 million. As per the fourth census of 1981, the population swelled to 83.782 million. The fifth, and to date last, census was conducted in 1998. This census put the number of Pakistanis at 130.857 million.

As census is required to be held every ten years, next national census was scheduled to be conducted in 2008. But, the matter has been lingering since 1998; however, it is expected that it will be held now in March 2017 as the Supreme Court has directed the government for the same.  Why holding census is necessary is a question the answer to which can be found in the following points:

First of all, the seats in the National Assembly are allocated to each Province, FATA and Federal Capital on the basis of the population. As per Article 51 (5) of the Constitution, this is done “on the basis of population in accordance with the last preceding census officially published.”

Second is the National Finance Commission Award which is a mechanism to distribute funds between the Federation and the Provinces. Article-160(2) enunciates the formation of the National Finance Commission which counts in census figures.

Third is the quota for recruitment to government jobs atz the Federal level that is, again, worked out on the basis of population ratios as reported in the census. Establishment Division’s O.M. No. 8/9/72, TRV, dated 31st August 1973, is of special import in this regard.

Fourthly, for sound socioeconomic facts and figures and the planning thereupon, data is required. The government might chalk out plan for the future but sans a census, ignorance and vague knowledge will be driving that exercise.

Another technical aspect of the census is that it provides the sampling frame for all other surveys conducted by the government and other agencies. With the absence of a reliable latest census, sampling frames are drawn from the 1998 census. Furthermore, the delineation of political and administrative boundaries will have to be based on the data of 1998 Census.

Although National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) does have the latest data, it does not share that with municipal or provincial governments. Academics and other researchers do also have no access to it. On the contrary, the census data is shared with other tiers of governments, researchers and with those interested in public policy.

Some people believe that small surveys and other national databases could substitute for the census. They are, indeed, gravely mistaken. Neither in Pakistan nor in an advanced economy, such as Canada, USA and UK, can there be a substitute for the census. Demographers, economists, and social scientists prefer census data as no amount of customised surveys or other databases, including those of NADRA, can be a substitute for the census.

Here a question may arise that if census has such a great importance, why it has not been a priority of the governments. Actually, the biggest impediment to carrying out a census has been the lack of political will on the part of country’s mainstream political parties. It can be assumed that they are afraid of reallocation of the present number of National Assembly seats in the light of the new population census as it will affect their vote banks.

At present, out of the 342 seats of the National Assembly, Punjab has 183 (148 general, 35 women); Sindh has 75 (61general, 14 women); Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has 43 (35 general, 8 women); Balochistan has 17 (14 general, 3 women); FATA has 12 and Federal Capital has 2 seats while 10 seats are reserved for Non-Muslims.

Apart from this extensive change, several key areas like the quota in the federal jobs, distribution of funds between the federation and the provinces through the NFC Award, etc. will also be changed. Political parties are afraid of possible repercussions of different political parties.

If population census is conducted in the near future, it will yield statistics on internal migration, urbanisation, as well as rural and urban population across Pakistan. The data will be used for delimitation of the constituencies of national and provincial assemblies, and will also be helpful in ensuring good governance in the country which is a prerequisite to plan efficiently for socioeconomic development.

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