The census in Pakistan was postponed yet again in a meeting of Council of Common Interests (CCI) held on 29th February. This was nothing less than a shock, because the census was scheduled to take place in March this year after a gap of 18 years and a delay of eight years as the census should have taken place in 2008 as per the Constitution. There is mixed reaction on the postponement of census. There are some stakeholders who want it to be postponed indefinitely, and others want it to be conducted immediately. Both are wrong. Let’s examine how.

There are two types of reasons for the postponement of census – first, official and second, real. The official reason cited by the federal government was related to the capacity issues. According to the federal government there are 166,819 census blocks which need to be counted in the census. These blocks require a workforce of 210,239 heads and additional army personnel to oversee the process give the level of distrust on civilian institutions. There are conflicting reports on the number of troops required for the gigantic task of conducting a census in Pakistan. The quoted number ranges from 200,000 to 375,000 troops. According to the government, troops in huge numbers can’t be committed because operation Zarb-e-Azb is in progress.

The real reason which resulted in the delay of census was not a lack of capacity. It was the resulting mess that would have been created due to change in demographics in census. Baloch politicians fear that population of Pashtun community will supersede Baloch and turn them into minority due to presence of Afghan refugees. Sindh government fears that population of urban Sindh can increase as compared to rural Sindh, given the massive influx of people in Karachi from all over Pakistan. Similarly, politicians in Punjab fear that the population of other three provinces will increase in greater proportion as compared to Punjab. As a result the hold of Punjab in unnatural federation of Pakistan will dilute.

Moreover, the census would not only turn the existing demographic situation upside down, it would also need to change constituency delimitations which is due after the Census. Demarcating constituencies would be another herculean task and it would result in another mega controversy. Those areas where population has increased will support it and vice versa. This controversy can potentially result in political instability in the country and no incumbent government can afford that. Therefore, the government picked the easy way out and delayed the census for now.

Census is a necessity for economic planning and development of any country and that’s why it has been declared mandatory by the Constitution of Pakistan after every ten years. No country can make effective economic plans if it does not have accurate data about its total population. This does not apply to just economic planning but also to the social sector. For instance, government or private organizations are not able to determine the correct figure of out of school children in Pakistan. So, there are no second thoughts on the importance of census and it should be conducted as soon as possible, but only after addressing the reservations of all stakeholders.

Amongst all the demographic reservation on census, the strongest comes from Balochistan. Census has been a focal point of politics in Balochistan from last few months and it culminated into Baloch nationalist parties announcing to resist the census if it’s conducted without addressing their reservations.

An independent analysis of the situation proves that the reservations of Baloch nationalists in the case of census are not unfounded. NADRA employees, in more than once case, have been arrested and convicted by accountability courts for issuing CNICs to Afghan refugees in Balochistan. So, it’s true that CNICs in huge numbers have been issued to Afghans which is enough to question the credibility of any census conducted in such circumstances. However, the claim of Baloch nationalists that over 4 million CNICs have been issued to Afghan refugees in Balochistan also does not seem to be accurate.

It’s important to address the reservations of Baloch nationalists to remove the biggest hurdle in the way of forthcoming census. The best way would be to form a government sanctioned committee that would comprise of nominees from Baloch nationalist parties, Pashtun nationalist parties, NADRA, Federal Bureau of Statistics, Census Commission, FIA and independent observers. This committee should devise a formula on how to identify the CNICs issued to Afghans that would not be counted in the sense. This committee would also generate an action plan on how to ensure that the census process is not hijacked by anyone in Balochistan. This suggestion might not seem workable given the current state of bad governance and lack of trust amongst stakeholders, but it’s the only way out.

Once the reservations against census from Balochistan are addressed then it’s easy to address the reservations form other provinces as they are less intense. In the same way the concerns of Sindh province can also be resolved and it will not be that difficult if government shows sincerity and desire to solve the issue.