According to a recent UN Report, population growth in Pakistan is expected to go over and beyond 3 billion in 2050, and the postponed national census would have been essential to reflect the changing trends had it been planned well in time. Where shoddy economic management and misconceived developmental schemes dominate PML-N’s political rule, it has nonetheless paid heed to a matter of national interest that previous governments had overlooked.

Ideally, it should have been held in 2008 - the last one was held in 1998 – and as such the exercise is eight years late. Certainly the last census was held in a very different Pakistan, and no comprehensive demographic data has been gathered to reflect or prepare for the changes in population trends since then.

Two previous democratic governments were unable, unwilling and ill-equipped for an exercise of that magnitude and significance, and consequently did not prioritize it. The present PML-N government, despite its apparent ineptitudes and continuing inability to prioritise pressing matters, has at least considered the prospect, which is appreciable. However, much like other pressing concerns, holding the census has also been jeopardised and after the recent Council of Common interest meeting, has in all probability been written off.

Because holding the census is an essential democratic activity, in United Kingdom and Canada, national census takes place after every ten and five years respectively. In Pakistan the General Statistics (Reorganization) Act, 2011 was promulgated that provided for Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS). Amongst the functions of the Bureau is to ensure proper collection, creation and utilisation of housing, population and other demographic data that is reliable and transparent. This, according to the Act, is to help in the economic and social development and the Bureau is obliged to hold the census once the government has notified of the same. However, the successive governments have been unable to carry out the activity regardless and which deprives the nations of its many democratic and socio-economic benefits.

Firstly, latest demographic statistics are the most fundamental and basic guidance available to the government for the allocation of resources for economic and social progress. This would include projects for housing, health, education, infrastructure, and social welfare etc. The most potent danger in implementation of projects that have not been researched through and through bites upon their utility for the general public. A development project that is ill suited to the needs of any given populace is futile and carries unwarranted burden on the national treasury. For instance, the misplaced focus of the Punjab government on the transport sector at the cost of say, education and health, affects a much larger population than it is realised. Or provision of schools and hospitals (or underpasses and flyovers), ensures advantageous utilisation of the yearly budget and development funds. Albeit, where census is by no means an end in itself, it helps provide a much needed perspective on how any budgetary allocation should yield socially-efficacious results.

Since population in Pakistan continues to grow and pressures on urban cities increase, the same population data would have been instrumental in identifying population trends and preparing for the future. The political, social and economic landscape has massively changed since 1998, and the country’s politicians, researchers and entrepreneurs could majorly benefit from the national census data collected and disseminated. Naturally, once the official statistics are out targeted developmental efforts for socio-economic development could help bring about an improvement in living standards. Many critics underplay the importance of holding a census and cite NADRA records as the second best reliable source. However, it must be understood that NADRA operates on a voluntary basis – there may be a sizeable population, particularly the illiterate, the old and people in the rural areas, that do not feel the need to acquire a CNIC or passport. Or, worse, have not been able to register with NADRA’s database. Therefore, the importance of a nation-wide census cannot be understated, and alternative surveys or databases may prove inadequate to fulfil the vital democratic function performed by a national census.

Lastly, and most importantly, it is only after a national census that under Article 51(5) of the Constitution, National Finance Commission’s awards can be finalised and distributed. This is important because the funds are based on population statistics, and census, being a constitutional duty, ensures that these are distributed justly among the provinces. Admittedly, granting the awards on the basis of population census conducted eighteen years ago would be unrepresentative and unfair. Moreover, the change in the demographic outlook of the country obviously has a major benefit for electoral reform in the country: where the constituencies need to be delimited to bring about adequate representation in the next general and local body elections. For most democratic political parties, this census may hold the key to their next election campaign, and citizens alike should be made aware of the importance of their democratic right to know about the state of their society.

However, holding the census has obviously fallen prey to politics and unresolved concerns: the Sindh government has raised objections alleging partiality and unfairness on the Federal government, whereas the Balochistan and KP governments have expressed concerns in view of the huge number of Afghan refugees, and demand that the refugees’ be repatriated before a census is held. This is to guarantee accurate representation of the native populace and prevent ethnic disparity. Clearly, Council of Common Interest has been unable to address the concerns adequately, and has, as a last resort, placed it on the backburner.

Nevertheless it cannot be dismissed that holding a census is indeed a logistical nightmare for the manpower-strained PBS, particularly in view of the fact that the military declined to provide more than 100,000 men for the purpose (only one-fourth of the original demand put forward by PBS). Moreover, ensuring the security and safety of the personnel carrying out the census is yet another problem and the time initially designated for carrying out the census was insufficient. Perhaps public representatives at the grass-root level will have to be engaged to make sure that political conflicts within the constituencies are minimised and the exercise is completed within the allocated time and resources. Moreover the PBS will also have to ensure that it provides adequate training to the personnel on the ground and to the ones handling collected data for it to be reliable, usable transparent and representative of the existing trends in population.

National census is a due diligence activity that needs to be undertaken swiftly and with sufficient planning. It is not only in national interest but also a citizen’s right to be informed that the public treasury is being utilised efficiently and conscientiously. As a suggestion, holding the census in phases spanned over a couple of months could mitigate the human resource problem currently faced by PBS. Interested members of the public, particularly local population in urban and rural centres, can also be involved on a minimum wage basis after requisite training for the activity. However, the government must prioritise the matter; the fact that a new date will be announced after ‘discussion with most stakeholders’ is akin to pending the matter until there is a more amenable time for the government.