PML-N promised in its elections manifesto for 2013 elections that they will ensure the national census is carried out as early as possible.
Under the constitution of Pakistan, the government is to conduct a census every 10 years, but it has been frequently skipped and the 2008 census is long overdue. 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. The fourth census was held in March 1981 and the fifth, which was due in 1991, wasn’t conducted till March 1998.
A census is deemed to be one of the basic elements for judicious distribution of resources, representation in parliament, electoral processes, tax collection and other civic issues, such as tracking urbanisation and planning for infrastructure development.
Pakistan’s national census was scheduled to take place in 2008 and later in 2010 but the plan did not materialise. Houses counting process was completed in April 2011, but due to political problems, the countrywide population census was not held.
The seats in the National Assembly are allocated to each province, FATA and Federal Territory on the basis of population in accordance with the last census officially published.
So, in all the subsequent elections since 1998, that is 2002, 2008 and 2013 polls, assembly seats were allocated on the basis of the 1998 Census.
After coming to power, PML-N government announced with the consent of four provinces in March 2015 that country’s sixth population census would be held in March 2016, with the support of armed forces as it was done in 1998.
This decision was taken at the meeting of Council of Common Interest (CCI) chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the PM House on March 18, 2015. During that meeting, it was also decided that housing and population censuses would be held at the same time and the cost of the census will be shared by provinces through the divisible pool.
However, in another meeting of CCI on February 29, 2016, the government again postponed the census.
During the meeting, the council was told that the country had been divided into 166,819 blocks for which a staff of 210,239 heads was required. The council was told that since the Armed Forces of Pakistan were engaged in the ongoing military operation Zarb-e-Azb, deployment of required Army personnel in March/April for conducting the census throughout the country was not possible.
On November 18, 2016, the Supreme Court of Pakistan during suo motu proceedings on delays in holding a population census rejected the government’s reasons behind a ‘conditional’ delay in the census.
The government again on November 22, 2016, reiterated in the National Assembly that it will be able to hold the much-delayed population census only by March 2017.
Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid told the Senate that the headcount could not be held till March 2017 due to unavailability of army troops.
Minister Hamid rejected the impression that the government was not serious about holding the census, saying that having a head count was actually beneficial for the province of Punjab.
Truth Tracker contacted Minister for States and Frontier Regions Lt Gen (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch to ask why PML-N is shying away from its promise of conducting the census.
He noted that the last census was held in 1998 during PML-N’s government and said PML-N will also hold it this time. “The census would be held prior to the general election and by March 2017. Since there is a bias with regard to the neutrality of the civilian authorities, the military is preferable as a neutral entity for carrying out this job,” he said.
Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani remarked in the Senate on November 21 that the army was busy tackling internal security issues and referred to the heightened tension with India along the Line of Control (LoC), saying: “I do not see you getting army personnel in such numbers in the near future.”
While speaking to Truth Tracker, Senior PPP leader and newly elected Secretary General Punjab Nadeem Afzal Chan said that the government is not serious about the census. “It is the third time they are postponing census after coming into power,” he said.
Talking to Truth Tracker, political and defence analyst, Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi said that there are political factors for the delay in the census and government’s unwillingness to assert its authority.
“Further, the government is unwilling to address the concerns of the different local groups who think that the census will not be fair and transparent. Every small group, especially in Sindh and Balochistan thinks that the census will be used to reduce their population and increase the population of their rival ethnic group,” said Rizvi, adding that it is basically ethnic rivalry which is getting in the way.
He finds strange the government’s argument that it can’t hold the census unless the Army makes its personnel available. Rizvi said conducting the census is a primary task of the administration, and the need to use Army personnel shows a failure of the administration.
Dr Qais Aslam, a professor of economics, said that a national census every 10 years is a primary planning tool in virtually every developed nation as well as a majority of developing states. In a world where demographics are shifting, sometimes rapidly, a census is essential if governments are to respond appropriately to emerging trends, he said.
He added that the census has been avoided because it is about distribution of resources, and politicians from all provinces are not interested in knowing the truth as each one of them are afraid to lose out.
“The politicians are afraid that household census might bring out the truth about poverty levels – both absolute as well as multi-dimensional relative poverty,” said Dr Aslam. He said people do not trust the civilian institutions and the Army is afraid that if they conduct the census and it is challenged by some politicians or groups, their credibility will also be at stake.
“Therefore, the census is not the priority of PML-N government. Manifesto like other things has been a farce for them,” he said.
In the light of facts and statements of the experts, Truth Tracker rules that the PML-N has compromised the promise.