Written By: Dr. Abid Qaiyum Suleri
Ever went to a physician and asked her/him to prescribe you some medicine for any disease? Any disease, because you don’t know what is wrong with you? You even don’t know the symptoms of your ailment? And you are not sure how you are different from now and when you were “healthy”? The idea seems absurd, is it not? The physician would require some information for accurate diagnosis. The same holds for governments (and non-public sector service providers) for effective planning, policy making and policy implementation. Like diagnostic medical tests which are required to have an accurate baseline of our state of health, population census is required to have a demographic baseline of a country. Demographic baseline includes number of total inhabitants living in Pakistan; their age, geographical distribution; ethnic, religious, and gender composition; educational level; income level; and employment level etc.
Unfortunately, population census, which in other parts of the world is a routine statutory activity, turns highly difficult and complicated in Pakistan. The fifth population census was due in 1991 and was held after a delay of seven years in 1998. The sixth one was due since 1998 and is being held now after a gap of 9 years and that too because Supreme Court has given a deadline to conduct it. One may argue that since 1998, successive governments of Pakistan had been planning and executing all sort of policies, plans and strategies – ranging from economic, social, political, foreign, environmental, and defence etc. – in the absence of any accurate demographic baseline.
The lack of accurate numbers not only affected decision making at government level, but also turned Pakistan into a place where guesstimates take precedence over realities; where sentiments are superior to evidences; and where whimsical decision making becomes rule of the game.
The thumb rule is that larger the number (population), larger the share in divisible pool of resources. Currently population gets 82.5% weightage in National Finance Commission Formula (the formula to distribute resources between federal government and provinces and among provinces). The accurate number comes from population census. During last nineteen years (since last census) the demographic trends in Pakistan have changed to an extent where all provinces seemed comfortable with a delayed census.
The Punjab was comfortable with a delay because its population as percentage of total population of Pakistan may reduce and so would its share in divisible pool. Sindh was comfortable with a delay because any change in its ethnic composition and rural-urban settlement patterns revealed through population census, would have had an impact on political economy of the province. The influx of internally displaced persons from FATA, presence of Afghan refugees, and migration from KP to other parts of Pakistan due to security situation has changed the demographic trends in KP forcing the political leadership to ask for some corrective measures before conducting Census. Balochistan was concerned with any change in ethnic composition of province due to the presence of Pushto speeking Afghan refugees in the province and wanted the latter to be excluded from Census.
Let us see how an updated population census would affect the current scheme of things;
• It would affect the provincial shares in federal revenues.
• It would affect the seat share of each province in the National Assembly, which hinges on population data.
• It would also affect the demarcation for national and provincial constituencies. There would be a process of delimitation of constituencies based on the census outputs before the 2018 General Elections.
• It would affect the quota for recruitment to federal posts, which is worked out on the basis of population ratios as given by the census.
• It would affect the provincial share of target subsidies provided by federal government.
• It would also reflect the number of intra-country migrants in largest metropolitan Karachi, which, according to different analysts, would increase the share of Sindh in Pakistan’s population.
• It would also reflect accurate ethnic composition of provinces; Punjabi and Seraiki in the Punjab, Sindhi and Urdu speaking in Sindh, Baloch and Pashtuns in Balochistan, and Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns in KP. An altered ethnic composition would result in “bigger the population, bigger the share”.
• It would also reflect the accurate number of non-Muslims in Pakistan. This would have direct implications on the number of seats reserved for non-Muslims in jobs as well as in the parliament and provincial legislative assemblies.
• It would also reflect the accurate proportion of men, women, and transgender in Pakistan, highlighting the need for gendered policies.
The above-mentioned effects would not automatically result into a positive change. However, the census would at least help in diagnosing who merits what on the basis of their share in population. This diagnosis would hit the interests of status quo lovers.
Partly because of the above mentioned political economy reasons which had potentially culminated into mistrust among different federating units, and partly because of security reasons, it was decided by the Executive Committee of National Economic Council (ECNEC) represented by all Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister of Pakistan that Census were to be held through support from Pakistan Army. Army’s support was required not only to ensure security but also to ensure transparency in collection of data.
In compliance with the Supreme Court’s orders, the Census has started. It has started amid reservations from different stakeholders, and many of those reservations are quite valid. For instance;
• A near lack of women enumerators for data collection.
• Failure to capture ethnic and religious diversity prevailing in Pakistan by giving limited choices for “mother tongue” and “religion” in the machine readable forms and clubbing many of them under “any other” sections. Thus Sikhs have filed a petition in the court as they would be clubbed under any other religion.
• The concern on not counting the unemployed population, neither the reasons underneath unemployment.
• The concern on not counting the exact number of people who migrated from other parts of Pakistan.
• The concern on not counting the mortality and fertility rates.
• The concern on how to accurately count internally displaced and temporarily displaced persons in KP/FATA.
• The concern that while respondent may be penalized for providing the inaccurate information, there is no such penalty for enumerators if they temper with the provided information.
There are also concerns by smaller federating units that Federal Government (to them the Punjab) would try to manipulate the population numbers for other provinces to secure its share both in the divisible pool as well as in the national assembly seats.
Despite these concerns, one must take the glass as half full. The mere fact that we would have a head count after 19 years is a big step forward to an evidence based decision making. In an ideal situation all procedural and technical flaws in census should have been removed. However, census is not taking place in an ideal situation. We all know that Federal Government was not ready for it and had to conduct this exercise under the Supreme Court’s orders.
Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) has tried to ensure transparency through providing the individually barcoded forms in registers. The forms are not to be detached from the registers. To add further scrutiny the army official accompanying the enumerator would also note down total numbers of persons counted per day. At the end of the working day both civilian enumerators and army personnel would tally their counts to identify any discrepancy. This may not be a very fool proof arrangement. However, one should consider PBS innocent until proven guilty. Let us wait for the summary results which should be released in July 2017, before starting criticism on the process and on its outcome.
There is a provision of “Post Census Evaluation” (PCE) where data can be verified through random checks after the census. We can make the most of that provision and a parliamentary committee on census or the ECNEC itself may double check the results wherever they have doubts.
Due to paucity of time, PBS had planned to conduct a survey after census to capture the trends of disabilities, unemployment, migration, and fertility. They had prepared form 2-A for this survey (for the interests of the readers, Form 1 is used for housing census, 2 for population census, and 2-A would be used for survey on the above mentioned four indicators). Under the directions of the Supreme Court the data on transgender and on disabilities would now be collected on population census form. However, the original forms had no codes for these indicators. In original forms “1” would be circled for male respondents and “2” for female respondents under the question “Gender”. The court has directed to manually enter 3, 4, 5, and 6 respectively for transgender, male with disability, female with disability, and transgender with disability under the question gender. This manual entry would certainly create confusions and the output of these fields would have to be double checked to ensure the enumerators in peripheries and remote areas are able to follow the directions of the superior courts.
Likewise, absence of women enumerators would certainly have negative effect in capturing the answers from female respondents especially in KP, FATA, Balochistan, and even in rural areas of other parts of Pakistan. This again highlights the importance of verifying the results through PCE.
As far as the ethnic mix in Balochistan is concerned, PBS is neither mandated nor equipped to check the originality of citizenship of Pakistani nationals. NADRA is the agency to cancel fake CNICs. PBS’s job is to count everyone living in Balochistan during the reference period of census. As the aliens headcount would be kept separate so the political leadership may take measures to exclude refugee population while deciding on delimitation of national and provincial assemblies constituencies.
Population census, which in other parts of the world is a routine statutory activity, turns highly difficult and complicated in Pakistan. The fifth population census was due in 1991 and was held after a delay of seven years in 1998. The sixth one was due since 1998 and is being held now after a gap of 9 years and that too because Supreme Court has given a deadline to conduct it. One may argue that since 1998, successive governments of Pakistan had been planning and executing all sort of policies, plans and strategies – ranging from economic, social, political, foreign, environmental, and defence etc. – in the absence of any accurate demographic baseline.
Through a non-inclusive census we would not know many demographic features in Pakistan such as accurate ethnic composition, number of unemployed, accurate number of people who migrated, and accurate number of people with special disabilities. However, we would be better off than having no data at all.
In the absence of census, Household Integrated Expenditure Survey (HIES) 2010-11 computed poverty in Pakistan to be 35 per cent based on the estimate that its population was 130 million. The same year Economic Survey of Pakistan (ESP) cited Pakistan’s population as 177 million. Forty seven million, here or there, may be nothing among friends. However, when we are talking of human beings, assessing the poverty level in a country, and planning to give relief to them, then every single individual matters. With the type of data which over or underestimate population of Pakistan by 47 million, one should not wonder why our performance on “millennium development goals” was one of the worst in the region. The confusion persisted in 2016 too when National Institute of Population Studies estimated Pakistan’s population as 198 million whereas (ESP) reported it to be 195 million.
To me current census is like going for general medical tests. If they don’t help you in absolute diagnosis of a disease, they may point out anomalies on the basis of which specialized tests can be taken and further probing can be done to reach to an accurate diagnosis. So let us hope there is no anomaly in the first place and be mentally ready to go for specialized tests if an anomaly is found.
The writer heads Sustainable Development Policy Institute.