By Manzoor Ahmed
Citing ‘tensions with India” as an excuse, Pakistan is about to postpone, yet again, its sixth census operations that have not been held for the last 17 years.
At the behest of the army, the Nawaz Sharif Government has told the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) that it cannot spare a whopping 1,67,000 soldiers to conduct the nationwide census since it cannot take them off the Line of Control (LOC) with India.
The census operations are set to be postponed despite a censure from the Supreme Court saying the government’s report expressing its inability was “just for show” and that “an unambiguous time table” must be decided and announced.
Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali observed that the army should only be called into action during a state of emergency. “If it is the army’s job to do everything, then what is the need for these institutions?” he asked, referring to government institutions.
“The government should just say that conducting a census is not its job,” he said tersely.
However, justifying his helplessness, PBS chief Asif Bajwa had in July actually gone on record that the government was “not bound” to hold a census every 10 years.
He argued that instead of a dubious one it would be better not to hold any census at all.
In repeated postponements, Pakistan has fallen back from the rest of South Asia where census is held regularly. Begun during the British colonial era in 1871, it remains a decennial exercise that has benefitted the governments as well as the people.
Questions have been raised why army is needed in Pakistan to conduct what should be essentially a civilian exercise with necessary police support. But it is also pointed out that the government is unable to conduct other civilian operations like polio vaccination for lack of security and overall political stability in the country.
The last census, held in 1997 was itself postponed when it was due in 1991. The sixth exercise is long overdue.
Experts have said that a proper head count of population and housing should at least be conducted to derive statistics that have bearing on the development of the country.
Lack of census has meant distribution of resources as per old statistics. Provinces feel they are at disadvantage vis a vis Punjab that gets lion’s share in everything. Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and most of all, Balochistan has been complaining of this.
Acute feeling of discrimination by Islamabad is basis of much of the conflict in Balochistan where dissatisfaction is maximum and the people have risen in revolt from time to time.
A meeting convened by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar last Saturday failed to come to any decision on the time table as stipulated by the Supreme Court. Several such meetings have been held since the Council of Common Interests (CCI) decided to postpone the census in March 2016.
The PBS has estimated that it would need around 167,000 army personnel to go door-to-door. In addition, the bureau estimated it would need an additional 20-30,000 personnel to supervise the census operation. A total of over 300,000 personnel are needed to conduct the operation that would take several months.
The first census in Pakistan was conducted in 1951, the second in 1961 and the third in 1972 instead of 1971, due to political turmoil that led to separation of its east-wing. The fourth census was held in March 1981 and the fifth, which was due in 1991, was conducted in March 1998 with the help of the army.
The census is deemed to be one of the basic elements for the judicious distribution of resources, calculating representation in parliament, electoral processes, tax collection and other civic issues, including growing urbanisation and evaluation of resources for infrastructure development.
Under the Constitution, the government is bound to conduct the population census every 10 years.
However, Bajwa said the word census was mentioned twice in the 1973 Constitution but it was not binding that the census should be held after every 10 years.
Underlining the instability and security threat, Bajwa has said “We cannot administer polio drops to our children without security. It would be better not to hold a census instead of a doubtful one. In 2011, a house listing was started but two people were killed during the process.”
“There are 31 countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon where census have been delayed,” underscoring the security threat much of it coming from militant groups that do not favour any exercise that would threaten their sway in the country.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and many other NGOs have said that failure to hold census operations, like the polio vaccination without army’s help is a clear sign of the failure of the state and successive political leaderships.