The Chief Minister of Sindh, Qaim Ali Shah, has often been the target of criticism for exaggerated and inappropriate statements, but his characterisation of the 2016 national census as a matter of “life and death” is neither of the two. The scheduled census, much like the local government elections, seem to be on a path of constant delays. Worryingly the otherwise routine civil activity is being tinged with political factors, which have the potential to be a much greater hurdle in the path of the census than practical constraints.

The National Assembly was informed on Monday that the government is committed to hold population census next month depending upon availability of army personnel for security purpose, while sources indicate that this requirement may not be met. The army claims that the personnel needed to effectively catty out the census is around 375,000, while it is stretched thin by military operations in east and in Karachi.

The armed forces’ hesitance to commit to the census is understandable, but definitely not condone-able. The military needs to make space for the census, and if that requires some difficult juggling of manpower and resources than the onus is on it to make it. The armed forces are a vast institution, a reshuffling will not compromise ongoing operations. Even if the do, it can be argued that a general census is more important than a sustained military operation in the long run.

These are strong words, but they are true. Without the information provided by a census - the last of which was carried out in 1998 - the lawmakers cannot know the demographics well enough to legislate effectively. Since 1998, there has been near constant conflict in Afghanistan that has pushed refugees to the country, numerous operations inside Pakistan than have created a sizable IDP population, and population growth that can only be speculated upon. Setting aside legislation, if Pakistan is to draw big investors than it must provide them with an updated list of consumers and their purchasing powers. The census is crucial to post-operation economic and infrastructural development.

Considering it’s importance, political parties need to stop painting it in ethnic colours. Balochistan fears that counting afghan refugees might change the Pashtun-Balochi ratio in the province, and Sindh has yet to take “all stakeholders on board”. It needs to be understood that a census is about understanding the facts on the ground, distasteful as they may be. Reflecting political wishes in it would undermine it’s purpose.