A census is an important event in a nation’s life, as it provides the basis for planning. The purpose of a census might be different from the use to which the information is put, and perhaps no example is better than the census which has just been conducted. The origin of censuses in the Subcontinent is based on the continuity of the censuses started by the Raj, conducted every 10 years, so that planners would be informed. There is no point in building a road between two points unless there are two concentrations of population which need linking or, there is no point in building a school unless there is some idea of where the students are to come from. If one is to provide a court of law, there must be some information of where the litigants will come from. All of this information comes from a census, but the basic function, the reason for the census, is to determine the delimitations of the national and provincial constituencies. The economic origin of the censuses is reflected in the fact that the federal body responsible for conducting the census, the Census Organisation, is part of the Federal Bureau of Statistics, which is in turn part of the Ministry of Finance. It should not be forgotten that decennial censuses were started by the British Raj in 1871, before provinces were granted representative self-government. However, that representative government was based on elected assemblies, formed of constituencies delimited according to population.

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The result of not updating delimitations in accordance with a recently conducted census became apparent in England, in the shape of ‘rotten boroughs’, the most notorious example being Old Sarum, which did not have any inhabitants by the 18th century, but which still had a seat in Parliament dating back to the 13th century, when it had been a bustling town, containing a castle and a cathedral. By the 18th century, Old Sarum had become a pocket rotten borough of the Pitt family,

However, fresh delimitations cause politicians to become upset, not just if they have to fight a larger constituency. Because of this, politicians resist censuses, and thus fresh delimitations, not vocally, because that would mean opposing the Constitution, but by a sort of dumb insolence. This was seen recently, where the coming election was almost delayed because members were not passing the required legislation which would allow the polls to be held according to fresh delimitations based on the latest census. It should be noted that there was no argument about the need for legislation, not even indirectly. There was simply a lack of action by parliamentarians.

There is the paradox that the delimitation will only be done afresh if there has been any change in the number of seats allocated to a district. There will also be a change if districts have been newly created. It should be noted that the delimiting authority itself is not interested in making changes, and if any district is allocated more or less seats than before, any changes that are made, will be conservative in the sense that there is an attempt to make as little change as possible.

The changes do not reflect the changes in the population so much as the internal migrations that occur. The data is not official, not having been notified after being finalised, but the use of preliminary data has been now allowed through constitutional amendment. Previously, the time lag between the holding of a census and the publication of its results did not prevent fresh delimitations being held in time for elections, but this time, the census was held close enough to polls to make it impossible to carry out fresh delimitations before the polls, even if elections were taken to term. At the same time, there would be informal knowledge of the results, which would make the present delimitations problematic.

Though the results would not be in a shape which would allow notification, they would allow delimitation. It should be noted that the delimitation exercise now being conducted is based on preliminary findings. These findings are unlikely to change sufficiently to invalidate the delimitations, even though they will involve a removal of five seats from Punjab, and addition of seats to the Federal Capital Territory (Islamabad), Balochistan and KP. There will be readjustments within provinces, and it should be noted that Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta will be getting extra seats. As the Punjab is already losing seats, Lahore’s taking up of an additional seat implies that its population has grown faster than that of other districts. This presumably reflects that there is increasing urbanisation, and the shift is fastest towards the provincial capital.

Indeed, the other provincial capitals, Peshawar and Quetta, fit this pattern. Karachi does not, and there may be academic, mainly sociological and historical, reasons why this is so. However, that does not seem to convince the MQM, which is the only political party to have lodged a protest strong enough to get a recount, or rather a partial recheck. However, the MQM has been more specific, claiming that the count has missed out 15 million people, giving a lower figure of only 14.91 million people for Karachi.

The MQM’s dilemma shows the importance of the census. It not only wishes to maximise the overall provincial share of the federal divisible pool for the province, but within the province it would like to maximise the population in its areas of strength so that they would get more seats. The MQM also shows the problem of the politicisation of what is essentially just a headcount. The census provides a statistical framework for the electoral contest. If the count is sufficiently skewed, results can be determined in advance, or at least unduly influenced.

At the constituency level, where the contests are o take place, the census determines the fate of individuals. It is possible for a constituency to ‘disappear’, being split between two or more other constituencies, especially where a district loses a seat. This means that an MNA or MPA will find himself obliged to retire, or else contest a constituency which might contain a familiar bastion, but also an area which is unfamiliar to him. Here he will find himself competing with another person who regards this constituency as his ‘own’.

Mian Nawaz Sharif, on the other hand, will face a shrinkage of his constituency, because though the province loses some seats, Lahore has actually gained one, even though the district remains the same. Mian Nawaz contested the old NA 85 constituency first in 1985, which was mostly, but not entirely carried over into NA 95 in 1988, and which formed the basis for NA 120 in the 2002 general election. Thus, Mian Nawaz will experience a fourth platform for campaigning, significantly smaller than his first, which he first contested 40 years ago. Over the years, therefore, Lahore district has gained three seats. This change has led to the electoral landscape changing for the constituencies and thus for the candidates.

Censuses are thus serious business, and not just an academic exercise. They provide the basis of democracy, but as they generate vast piles of figures, they can be used in any system. After all, as has been famously said, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics!”