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28 February 2024

Pakistan to kick off first census in 19 years


Pakistan will this week embark on the enormous task of conducting its first census in almost two decades, after years of bickering between politicians concerned about power bases and federal funding.

Fast-growing Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, with an estimated 200 million people, but has not held a census since 1998, despite a constitutional requirement for one every decade.

The process starts Wednesday and will deploy a team of more than 300,000 people and involve 55 million forms - a challenge in a country known for corruption and dysfunction.

It will be the basis for revising political boundaries, parliamentary seat allocations and federal funding, while also giving a clearer picture about religious minority numbers in the Muslim-majority country as well as counting the transsexual population for the first time.

The census is a highly charged issue, coming one year before national parliamentary elections.

"Pakistan is not a country with a homogenous population," said Muddassir Rizvi, head of programmes at the Free and Fair Elections Network, "we are multiple ethnicities, more than 80 different languages are spoken. The count actually determines the political power of various ethnicities."

The mighty Punjab province, for example, could see its political grip weaken as a result of its population not rising at a similar rate to other provinces.

"It is not a well received exercise by political actors. It's only on the orders and insistence of the Supreme Court that this exercise is being undertaken," said Rizvi.

Army escorts

The lack of political will has resulted in hasty preparations.

The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) has been primed and ready on the starting blocks for ten years, but the government only gave its green light less than three months ago -  a short time to train staff and reassure parties and communities.

"There was very limited time to get everybody on board (and) ensure everyone feels the importance of being counted " said Dr Hassan Mohtashami, of the United Nations Population Fund.

Many within the country are unhappy about how the presence of approximately two million Afghan refugees, whose nationality is difficult to determine because of falsified documents, could skew the numbers if they get counted as Pakistanis belonging to the Pashtun ethnic group.

In Balochistan, the country's largest province by area but the least populated, a nationalist party has rejected the census, calling it tantamount to "suicide" because an influx of Pashtuns - both from other parts of Pakistan as well as from Afghanistan - would make the ethnic Baloch a minority in their own region.

The PBS will deploy some 119,000 people, including 84,000 enumerators: teachers and local officials who will go door-to-door to count homes and then individuals.

Pakistan's powerful army meanwhile announced it would dispatch up to 200,000 troops for the exercise, including 44,000 participating directly in the census-taking and making a parallel count.

Asif Bajwa, the PBS's chief statistician, said the army would act as 'observers' to ensure enumerators did not inflate local counting.

"Being a local person, the enumerator is susceptible to pressures, because everybody knows that a larger population translates into more jobs, more seats, and more money for the province," he said, adding each census-taker will be accompanied by a military counterpart.

But that has created some disquiet for the UN who are concerned about the army's role as parallel data collectors.

"The administration of any kind of other questionnaire during the census is (infringing) on the principle of confidentiality," said Mohtashami.

The first census phase will take place from March 15 to April 15, the second from April 25 to May 25, and final results are expected by the end of July.