On Friday, the Prime Minister’s Office announced the Council of Common Interests -- a constitutional body vested with powers to resolve disputes between the federation and the country’s four provinces Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Gilgit-Baltistan semi-autonomous territory – had agreed to hold Pakistan’s sixth population census on March 15.

The statement added that house listing and two-phase census operation would be carried out together, according to daily Dawn. The army chief also announced in a separate statement Friday that 200,000 troops would be made available to carry out the expensive exercise, which is estimated to cost the national exchequer around 14.5 billion rupees (approximately $138 million).

The latest move by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government came only after the Supreme Court took suo motu action over the delay in carrying out the crucial exercise.

This is the second time the census has been delayed since the country gained its independence in 1947 from the then British Empire. The first four censuses -- 1951, 1961, 1972, and 1981 -- were all held on time, but the fifth census was held after a seven-year delay in 1998.

Growing population

Pakistan is estimated to be the second-largest Muslim country in terms of population after Indonesia. It currently ranks as the sixth most populated country in the world.

According to the 1951 census, there used to be just 33.7 million people in the country, which rose to 42.8 million in 1961, 65 million in 1972 and 85 million in 1981.

The last census of 1998 estimated the population at roughly over 130 million with Punjab emerging again as the most populated province, followed by Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.

Political analyst Mushtaq Mirani said the census had repeatedly been delayed by successive governments primarily because of conflict between Punjab -- the province from which the current prime minister hails from -- and the smaller provinces over two major issues: lack of transparency and access to remote areas.

In fact, since a majority of the census staff belonged to Punjab, they were accused of deliberately fudging the figures of smaller provinces, Mirani said.

Secondly, he added, lack of access to rural and remote parts of the smaller provinces, especially in Sindh and Balochistan were major obstacles in finding out the actual population of the provinces.

The government of Pakistan and the UN believe the current population to be somewhere between 180 million and 200 million.

Ethnic tensions

Census has been a major source of contention between provinces, and subsequently among the different ethnic groups who live there.

Smaller provinces, especially Sindh and Balochistan have always doubted the transparency of the census process.

According to Mirani, rival communities want to exploit the census and desire results in their favor.

“For instance, in Sindh, which is the most multi-ethnic province in the country, Mohajirs [Urdu speaking ethnic group who came as migrants from India following independence of Pakistan in 1947], Punjabis and Pashtuns want to show their populations as bigger than their actual size in order to get more constituencies, and employment quota, which alarms local [ethnic] Sindhis,” he said.

Similarly, in Balochistan, the ethnic Baloch object to the inclusion of Afghan refugees in the census process because of fears it might increase the population of Pashtuns.

A big majority of Afghans are ethnically Pashtuns. According to UN statistics, Pakistan is currently hosting 1.3 million Afghan refugees. Unofficial statistics, however, suggest that around 3 million Afghan refugees are residing in Pakistan, mainly in KhyberPakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.

Fight over national resources

Economist Qaiser Bengali believes one of the main issues is that no province wants its share in the national pool of resources to be cut, no matter what the size of the population is in the new census.

In Pakistan, the data about population is used to decide the share of provinces in national resources and delimitation of constituencies of the national and provincial assemblies.

“Sindh is the recipient of more migrants in last one decade following the military operations in the tribal belt. Therefore, the new census means increase in Sindh’s share and cut in other provinces’ share, especially Punjab which is not acceptable to other provinces,” Bengali told Anadolu Agency.

Balochistan’s share is also likely to be increased because of the presence of a large number of Afghan refugees, but the Balochs fear it would turn them into a minority in their own province, he said.

Likewise, he added, in Sindh, ethnic Sindhis do not want the share of Karachi to rise as it would benefit ethnic Mohajirs who make up around 44 percent of the provincial capital’s population. Similarly, Mohajirs want Karachi’s share to rise to get more seats in the national and provincial assemblies, he said.

Mirani agreed and added: “Each province and community wants to dominate in census in order to grab more and more share in national resources and government jobs.

“That’s why census has been a source of conflict between provinces and communities.”

Flawed methodology?

Time and again analysts have objected to the use of primitive methodology in the census process, which is mostly a manual process involving printed papers and thumb prints that are then fed into computers.

In an article for Dawn, expert Murtaza Haider recalled how in 2006 he was tasked with training employees of the then Federal Bureau of Statistics in digitizing the census geography, but later the entire exercise came to naught due to bureaucratic hurdles. Haider had urged the government to consider collaborating with tech giants such as Google apart from increasing the capacity of institutions such as the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.

Babar Manzoor, an Islamabad-based IT expert, agreed the use technology could make the census results more accurate and reliable.

“There are several databases already available that can help vis-a-vis census if they are compiled and tabulated through state-of-the-art technology. For example, the data of adults can be complied through National Database Registration Authority, while children’s data can be accumulated from union councils”, Manzoor told Anadolu Agency.

He added that aerial photography and Google Earth could also be used for housing census.

Meanwhile, just weeks to go before the census, it is clear that Pakistan has a long way to go before the requirements of transparency can be fulfilled.

Describing one of the many difficulties in the process, Mirani said: “The census computers do not recognize more than six family members in one house. In rural parts of Sindh, several families share a compound [living quarters] with totally separate expenditure. However, the census staff considers the entire compound as one unit and does not accept any figure beyond six.”

Anadolu Agency