Terra Nullius | A State that counts

Pakistan needs tangible numbers that prove the existence of its citizens.

The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics has recently approved a timeline to hold the population and housing census in Pakistan, in March 2016. The preliminary data will be completed by June 2016, while the district wise data reports, will be completed by December 2017. If held as planned, the 2016 census will be the first in 17 years.

Since it creation, Pakistan has held only 5 censuses. The Pakistan Census Organization was established by the new Pakistani government in 1947. The first census, numerating east as well as west Pakistan was held in 1951, followed by the second in 1961. The war of 1971 pushed the next deccenial census by a year, to 1972.  The fourth census was held a decade later, in 1981. The census scheduled in 1991 was mired in political controversies and was held 17 years later, in 1998. The cost of this census was estimated to be 27 million dollars. 170,000 military and 130,000 civilian personnel were a part of this particular exercise. Still, there were apprehensions about the procedures followed, and the authenticity and accuracy of the data produced are questioned till date.

Calls for a census have been made in Pakistan for a long time. The year 2011 had been named the “Population Year” by the Government but this yielded no tangible results. The reasons for this range from flooding in parts of the country, lack of training for the 225,000 census takers, apalling security situations and the complex political scenarios. Pakistan was experiencing rapid urbanisation. The third of the country’s population had long lived in rural areas and 50 percent was expected to live in cities by the 2020s. According to Michael Kugleman, most of Pakistan’s political leadership drew its power from rural landholdings, power that could be greatly reduced if a census confirmed this migration toward cities.

In the 1960s the federal government reorganised West Pakistan into provinces, and each so on the basis of ethnic composition of the population. Punjab
was identified with the majority of Punjabis and Sindhi population. Baluchistan with the Baluchis, and the Northwest Frontier Province with the Pakhtuns. The provinces were each given a quota, reviewed periodically based on the data from the census. This quota determined aspects such as jobs in the Government, revenue expenditures, education (school and university), representation in federal governments, among others.

However, the need for census data in Pakistan is not only to understand population demographics but also for the seat shares in the Parliament, local municipal elections, National Finance Comission Award, subsidies and welfare schemes, infrastructural development, the delimitation of electoral constituencies, security and for any future policy matter.

It is not just the financial allocations and seats in the Parliament, or the ethnic composition of regions that could tip the order in the country. According to Anita M Weiss, the reasons for not holding the census in Pakistan are complex:

First, A census in Pakistan would reveal the ethnic composition of Baluchistan.
Second, it could reveal the growth rate of the city of Karachi and commensurate representation in the national Parliament, and higher quotas for government jobs, university admissions, and the like.
Third, Punjab, the most populous province, would have its share of federal jobs and funding undercut if other provinces falsely boost heir population count.
Fourth, Rural landholdings elites would lose seats in the National Assembly if it turns out that there has been significant population growth in urban areas.
Fifth, Sectarian disputes between Sunni and Shia groups would escalate as one group will certainly decry over counting of the other, thereby fueling the ravaging widespread and random acts of terrorism that these disputes already have wrought;
Sixth, Population growth rates that might be over 3 percent would serve to underscore the state’s failure to raise the status of women. It would further antagonise the culture war brewing between those who advocate the state’s active pursuit of the empowerment of women versus those who advocate state suppression of outside forces, seen as seeking to exploit women and lead them away from their prescribed roles within the culture.
Seventh, it would impact the planning and policy implications, as decisions on where to invest resources are based on population figures and acknowledged needs of such targeted communities.

Any country – even one as convoluted as Pakistan – needs to identify its own statistics. Pakistan’s inability to conduct a stable and empirical census only underlines its volatile and misplaced policy aims. Pakistan is now facing the wrath of the very demons it created. In trying to understand its terrible human development indicators, correct its misplaced infrastructural concerns, or tackle the imploding security challenges – the country needs tangible numbers that prove the existence of its citizens, outside of imprecise guesses. One can only hope that the census takes place as planned next March, with sound results, and the country’s schizophrenic politics do not delay it for another 17 years.