Getting the count right

Editorial Board
Monday, May 01, 2023

As Minister of Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Ahsan Iqbal directed provincial governments to complete by May 15 field verification/coverage of the census in areas where population growth is seen as having anomalies, he has also said that along with under-enumeration, the digital system has also identified over-counting. These are some of the issues that have been raised regarding the digital census being conducted in the country. The deadline for the count was originally supposed to be April 4 but has since been extended – for the fifth time – to May 15. Karachi – ostensibly the country’s largest city – witnessed a population growth of just 0.4 per cent, its population increasing by 1.4 million to rise over 17.4 million, while Sindh’s population has apparently jumped by 6.46 million to reach 54.31 million. There have also been some contentious results, especially in Balochistan and Sindh. Balochistan has reportedly seen a surge of 7.8 per cent with some divisions witnessing higher than expected growth.

These initial results from the first digital census conducted in Pakistan have led to considerable consternation and some element of mystification in various circles, most of all political parties including the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), which have focused especially on overcounting and undercounting issues. In urban Sindh, the MQM and JI have raised concerns about an exercise they say is not representative of the growth realities in cities like Karachi. The figures came a day after the PBS briefed political parties about the ongoing census.

The importance of the census for Pakistan exists beyond politics. This census is going to be the blueprint for public policy over the next decade and as such it is important that as many details as possible are collected. The population breakdowns in the census are used as a baseline for sampling in every other government survey. Funds for everything, from welfare payments to health and education, will be apportioned and allocated on the basis of the census. The effectiveness of such programmes are dependent on knowing exactly where money needs to be spent. More than anything else, the NFC share is linked mainly to the population count. This is why any controversy surrounding the exercise only complicates political, financial and social realities. The country needs stability and a good and unflawed – and fair – census exercise contributes to people’s confidence in the system. After the last census, the publication of the final results was held back for years by the CCI because there were open disagreements about the data. That unpleasant experience we cannot afford once again, which is why any controversies and concerns need to be resolved before the census data is finalized. The census is not just about counting people; it is about who gets what share in the country’s already precious fortunes. From the NFC share to urban resource management to issues of housing, getting the count right is the only way to ensure some sense of equality in distributing resources in the country.