The provisional data of the 6th census, which puts Pakistan’s population at 207.77 million – a jump of 57 percent since the last headcount done in 1998 – has become yet another source of discord and conflict in an already charged and polarised political atmosphere.
The loudest and fiercest voices challenging the 2017 census data have emerged from Sindh, which recorded lower-than-expected population growth in both rural and urban areas compared to the other parts of the country – at least according to the census figures.
According to one of Pakistan’s best-known demographers, Dr. Mehtab S. Karim, the census lacked transparency; its data, particularly regarding Sindh which is Pakistan’s second most populous province after Punjab, appeared to be flawed and self-contradictory.
The census data shows Punjab, housing 110 million people, as the largest province in terms of population. Sindh comes in at second place with a population of 47.9 million, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) stands at third with 30.5 million and Balochistan registered at fourth place with 12.3 million people.
According to one of Pakistan’s best-known demographers, Dr. Mehtab S. Karim, the census lacked transparency
The population of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has been recorded at five million and that of the federal capital Islamabad at around two million.
Experts say that after the completion of the official headcount exercise in May, the government should have gone for “post census enumeration,” or sample surveys in all blocks by a third-party, to avoid controversies. Sample surveys are done to determine consistency in the census figures. But the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) did not pay heed to this advice, given formally by experts. Had this been done, it would have helped mitigate many post-census controversies.
Politicians and elected representatives hailing from Sindh’s urban and rural areas have raised a furious storm over the census figures, alleging that the population of their province has been under-reported. The Sindh government has formally raised the issue because it hurts the economic interests of the province when it comes to the allocation and distribution of resources.
Sindh’s ruling party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the main opposition, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), have valid reasons to reject the census figures. Firstly, the 2017 census does not reflect the figures of the past official sample surveys. For example, past sample surveys had put each household size in Sindh at 6.6 persons, which dropped to 5.6 persons per household in the latest census.
Past official surveys and the census figures regarding the size of households in Punjab (at 6.2 persons), Balochistan (7.5 persons) and KPK (at 7.5 persons) remained consistent or showed a slight increase as is the case of Punjab.“The only exception was Sindh, where the household size became smaller in the latest census compared to the past surveys, which is hard to digest,” said Dr. Karim. “This means that straight away 8.5 million people in Sindh were not counted, by design or by default, if it is to be believed that there are 8.5 million households in Sindh according to the census figures.”
Secondly, the survey in 2011 had put the number of households in Sindh at more than 9.0 million, but the latest census even brought this number down to 8.5 million.
Thirdly, the Nadra website, which gave a population snapshot of each constituency in 2013, had put Karachi’s population at 21 million, which in 2016 was estimated at 23 million. The 2011 sample census exercise also estimated Karachi’s population at 21 million and of Sindh at 55 million people, according to Dr. Karim.
But the 2017 census puts Karachi’s population at 14.9 million and that of Sindh at 47.9 million. While Karachi’s population showed an increase of 59.7 percent since the last census was held in 1998, Lahore’s population witnessed a staggering 116 percent rise to 11.12 million.
Karachi’s lower population growth compared to Lahore should raise eyebrows because the country’s industrial and financial capital attracts the bulk of immigrant workers from across the country, including South Punjab and KPK as well as the troubled tribal region. However, Chief Census Commissioner Asif Bajwa has said that the higher population growth rate in Lahore was because the Punjab Government had declared the entire Lahore district as urban, while two districts in Karachi were still classified as rural. This clarification has been rejected by members of the PPP as invalid. The fifth objection regarding the census exercise has emerged because of the sudden shifting of data processing units to Islamabad from Karachi ahead of the census.
The chances of manipulation in figures are more at the compiling stage rather than when the actual count is taking place, given the fact that soldiers and officers of the Pakistan Armed Forces accompanied the census staff for their protection. Dr. Karim says there are so many anomalies and contradictory figures in the census that it is mind boggling. Even if the census figures have not been manipulated, these contradictions underline the incompetence and inefficiency of the concerned department which lacked qualified staff to conduct this exercise, he added. Concerned authorities should seek third-party sample surveys across the country, especially Karachi, before they finalise the census figures by April 2018, to put the census controversy at rest. But this does not appear to be on the government’s agenda and Pakistan seems destined to live with flawed census figures and a new controversy until the new headcount in 2027 – if it is held on time.