Census Blues

The latest census has become the most controversial in Pakistan’s history, because of the alleged undercounting of the population of Sindh, particularly Karachi

By: Dr Mehtab S Karim
Published: February 14, 2018
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Since Pakistan won independence in 1947, the size of its ever-booming population remained a sensitive and controversial issue, often falling prey to political expediency and stoking tensions among various regions of the country.

For example, to offset the size of former East Pakistan’s population, four smaller provinces in the western wing were merged together into one unit as West Pakistan.  But when the 1961 census showed that West Pakistan’s population was 45 percent against East Pakistan’s 55 percent, the concept of parity was retained in the 1962 constitution. Therefore, one key demand of the former East Pakistan-based Awami League was to scrap this artificial parity system between the two wings of the country. The demand was eventually met in 1969, but a year later, the elections on the basis of adult franchise led to the dismemberment of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s next constitution of 1973 made holding of census mandatory every ten years along with the distribution of resources among the provinces and allocation of seats in the National and provincial assemblies on the basis of population.

The 1981 census showed that the share of each province underwent a drastic change compared to the 1950s. For example, Sindh’s population increased to about 23 percent in 1981 compared to 18 percent in the 1951 census. This happened mainly at the cost of Punjab, which saw its share declining to 56 percent from 61 during the same period.

The 1991 census was postponed and was eventually conducted in 1998. But unlike the past population headcounts, Sindh’s share increased only marginally. Due to politics of opportunism and flawed priorities of the then government, the 2008 census was postponed. Even results of the 2011 housing census were quashed as a fairly high growth rate was reported in Sindh.

Eventually on the Supreme Court’s intervention, census was conducted in 2017 — after a gap of 19 years, but its provisional results, declared in September last year, are being disputed by both the ruling and the opposition parties of Sindh.

    Indeed, the latest census has become the most controversial in Pakistan’s history because of the alleged undercounting of the population of Sindh, particularly Karachi.

As a result, the share of Sindh and its capital Karachi – which receive a continuous flow of migrants from other provinces – remained stuck at the 1998 census figures of 23 and 7.0 percent respectively in the country’s overall population.

This happened because census was conducted on a de-jure basis. The requirement of checking and validating the computerised national identity card (CNIC) was not dropped. The former led to under-counting as internal migrants’ addresses showed their original place of residence, while aliens were also left out of the count because they failed to produce the CNIC. That’s why 2017 census results surprised most political commentators, media personalities, civil society members and policy makers.

The 2017 census sprang another surprise; it recorded the population’s annual growth rate at 2.4 percent as against an expected under 2.0 percent – an addition of over 10 million more people than estimated.

This highlights Pakistan’s failure to boost the use of contraceptives among couples during the past 15 years, putting the country’s population control programme behind most other countries. Pakistan’s annual population growth is one to two percent higher than most other Asian countries as on an average, a Pakistani woman bears two additional children compared to other countries, barring Afghanistan and Timor-Leste.

Between the first and second post-independence census held in 1951 and 1981 respectively, Pakistan’s population increased from 34 million to 83 million. The provisional results of the 2017 census declared Pakistan’s population at around 208 million. This means that during the first 30 years after independence, 49 million people were added to the country’s population, while in the next 36 years, the population swelled by 125 million people.

Pakistan’s population explosion has had a tremendous impact on the well-being of the people, economy and the civic-infrastructure.  For example, population growth and inheritance patterns have contributed to a decrease in the size of land holdings to the point where more than one-fourth of farms are under one hectare – the minimum size for economic viability.  Millions of people from rural areas are being forced to migrate to cities in search of employment.

Whether it is widespread poverty, deteriorating civic amenities, poor healthcare, soaring crime rate in cities, pollution or water shortage for farming and household consumption – all these challenges have their roots in the rapid population growth, especially among the poor segment of the society.

The most vulnerable – women in the reproductive ages and children – suffer due to the rapid population growth among the poor.  The poor have limited disposable income and as a consequence of too many children, the family size is large. As a result, they remain trapped in an ever crushing cycle of poverty, generation after generation.  For example, due to inadequate resources, children are denied education and most of them end up as child labourers, while women are denied the opportunity to lead a healthy life, which deprives them of the ability to earn a respectable livelihood.

Doing research on population issues in Muslim countries during the past 15 years, I noted with concern that Pakistan has a much higher population growth rate than most Muslim countries, including Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia, because our successive governments never gave priority to the family planning programme.

That’s why contraceptive use among married Pakistani women is a dismal 30 percent – the lowest in Asia – resulting in a fertility level, which is about twice higher than Bangladesh and Iran, where contraceptive use among married women is 62 and 74 percent respectively. In Bangladesh and Iran, on an average a woman bears 2.2 and 1.7 children respectively against 3.9 children in Pakistan.

    In 1971, compared to Pakistan, Bangladesh had 10 million more people  but the situation has reversed. Today, Pakistan has roughly 35 million more people compared to Bangladesh.

Pakistan has a long way to go before its population stabilises at about 300 million by 2050. By then, it will be the world’s 4th largest country, while Bangladesh with about 200 million people will be ranked 8th.

Uncontrolled population growth rate on the one hand, and absence of credible-data on the other hand, has remained a major road-block in the progress of the country.

Our successive rulers have failed to realise that census data is integral for the growth prospects of the country at large, and its provinces in particular. Therefore, it is of prime importance that censuses are conducted in a professional and transparent manner, but unfortunately the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics failed to ensure this.

No wonder the Sindh government refused to accept the provisional census results and has demanded a recount. Since the Election Commission wanted to use the provisional census results for the delimitation of constituencies, a constitutional amendment was required for which the government needed the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s support in the Senate.

Therefore, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi – in the Council of Common Interests’ meeting – conceded to the demand of Sindh’s Chief Minister to conduct a validation survey in 5.0 percent of about 160,000 census blocks.

The holding of a validation survey is a gigantic task and must be performed by a third party.  The results of the validation exercise will be compared with the results of the 2017 census conducted in the same census blocks. But these results may not be reported if the validation survey gets conducted on a de-facto basis, which would allow counting the migrants and dropping the requirement of the national identity cards to include aliens in the headcount.

If the results are substantially different, it will open a Pandora’s Box.  Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, which according to the provisional census results will gain several seats in the National Assembly, may refuse to accept the new count.

Similarly, if Sindh’s claims that over 8.0 million people remained uncounted in 2017 are true, its share would go up substantially. This would result in a substantial reduction in Punjab’s share in the country’s overall population, which may become a bone of contention.

Since the census enjoys 85 percent weightage in the National Finance Commission Award, it has a substantial impact on fund distribution among provinces for the next 10 years or till the next census is held. Thus, either way, if the 2017 census results are accepted or adjusted on the basis of the recount, they will remain controversial as the government failed to carry out the exercise in a credible and transparent manner.

About the Author
Dr Mehtab S Karim
Dr Mehtab S Karim is a social scientist and has been associated with universities in USA, UK and Pakistan for over 30 years. During this time he has conducted research on social and economic development, health and population issues in South and South-East Asian countries.