With about 200 million people, Pakistan is the world’s sixth most populous country. It is also the second most populous Muslim country. But these figures are not drawn from a census. It’s almost 20 years since Pakistan has conducted such an exercise. The country was scheduled to hold a census in 2008, but the then-Pakistan People’s Party-led government cried off from the exercise, citing security concerns and lack of finances. The Pakistan Muslim League, which assumed office in 2013, displayed similar reluctance till the country’s Supreme Court decided to take matters in hand. In December last year, it gave the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics three months to begin work on the country’s sixth census. But the exercise that began on Wednesday will be little more than a headcount. More than 90,000 enumerators will collect statistics on gender, age, marital status and religion, but they have no mandate to collect data on significant social indicators such as fertility, disability, mortality and internal migration. Only nine of the country’s 70 languages are listed in the census forms.
But even a sketchy headcount could have political and social significance in the strife-torn country. In Pakistan, censuses are used for constitutional functions such as the distribution of national assembly seats and inter-province resource allocation. Currently, 50 per cent of the resources go to Punjab and 183 of the 342 members of the country’s National Assembly are from the province. In Pakistan’s last census in 1998, Punjab recorded a slower per annum population growth rate than Sindh. A continuation of this trend could upset the province’s clout in national affairs.
For the country’s planners, decision-makers and scholars, Pakistan’s sixth census holds the key to explaining what has changed in the country since 1998. In some of the strife-torn parts of the country, it could allow the government to take stock of what has survived the brutalities of conflict. It could make the planners rethink some of their paradigms and priorities.