The sixth census is underway these days after a gap of almost two decades. After delaying it twice and the civilian government dragging its feet; it is finally being conducted on strict directions of the Supreme Court. Around 200,000 soldiers are helping 91,000 civilian enumerators who will go to every house to get the forms filled. The first census of Pakistan was conducted in 1951, the second in 1961 while the third census was held in 1972 instead of 1971 due to political environment in the country and war with India. The fourth census was held in March 1981 and the fifth one, which was due in 1991 was held in 1998. In these 19 years, the demographic and social landscape of Pakistan has completely changed. Rapid urbanisation, population displacement due to security operations and natural disasters has had a tremendous impact on settlement patterns.

The census is a periodic activity and must be conducted regularly because it carries lot of benefits for the country. It allows us to compare different groups of people across the country. It provides information regarding parts of the country the government needs to develop policies for, plan and run public services in and allocate funding to. It tells us how many people work in different occupations and industries, about new jobs and training policies; investment decisions are also made on the basis of the census. According to a research report by UNDP, every year, Pakistan needs more than 1.5 million jobs for the youth entering the workforce.

Residential mobility data can provide an understanding of spatial differences in socio-economic status and how these change over time. Estimates of the required scale of future health, education and other essential services are based on population projections. National and regional population projections are also crucial to estimating the environmental impact of population growth, allocation of water resources, land use or other factors. The census does not remain the same; it evolves to answer relevant contemporary questions.

For the first time in this census, transgender persons will be counted separately and this is a historical move. Enumerators have three choices for their gender; they can choose between man, woman, or declare themselves transgender. The census will also provide an insight into the true number of religious minorities, especially Christians and Hindus. Citizens can declare themselves Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Ahmadi. There are no separate options for Sikhs, Parsis or Baha’i. There is also a count for toilets this time. About nationality, the form gives two options – Pakistani or foreign.

When it comes to languages, many communities expressed their dismay because only nine out of the country’s estimated 70 languages are listed. No regional language is included. The other concerns are that the estimated six million Pakistanis working abroad will miss out on the count. Similarly, no information will be collected on internal migration, which is necessary to assess the political weight of a province where many people have moved for economic reasons.

A census always has deep political repercussions and that is why it is evaded by political governments. This census also brings some major changes which will also affect the electoral politics of Pakistan, especially in Punjab. According to an estimate, at least 40 million people have increased in this province alone. This may have an impact on PML-N’s monopoly over Punjab. The making of new provinces in Punjab may become inevitable. Similarly, the rising number of Pashtuns in Karachi and declining number of Urdu speaking persons will also have political ramifications which many would like to avoid. Another direct implication of this census will be for resource distribution. This government will have to give an equal share to all the provinces in all fields.

The people must be duly informed about the indispensable importance of a census in national life. According to an estimate, this census will cost Rs 18 billion. It is not just about statistics, the political status quo stands to be challenged, rather, the census will have a profound impact on the distribution of federal resources and the allocation of legislative power in the National Assembly. It will give insights into urbanisation trends and can be very effectively used for devising law enforcement strategies, security infrastructure and better local governments. All political parties should be prepared to let go and work with new ground realities. The provincial governments should participate in ensuring a credible consensus. They are now stakeholders. Blame game should be avoided at all costs. This census should be transparent and its data should be released immediately and be available to research communities to shun doubts and confusions.