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Pakistan’s headcount: a necessary exercise despite resistance (Hindu.)

The Sharif government must conduct a census despite the resistance from various groups

Pakistan’s decision to launch a national census, after much delay, is a welcome step that would allow it to formulate realistic policies to address the challenges it faces. The data are critical as key federal decisions such as resource allocation for provinces and delimitation of electoral constituencies are taken based on demographic numbers. This would be the first census in 19 years. The government is supposed to do it every 10 years, but Pakistani authorities, under pressure from political parties and ethnic groups, have delayed the process. The Nawaz Sharif government actually moved into action after a Supreme Court order set a March deadline to start the process. The army has provided 200,000 personnel for security for the 70-day campaign. It is not difficult to see why traditional political parties and ethnic leaders oppose the data-gathering. Since the last census was conducted in 1998 by the second Sharif government, Pakistan has undergone major changes. There has been a massive influx of people into Sindh, while the population growth in Punjab is slowing down. But political parties in Sindh say many Sindhis in rural Sindh may not be counted as they do not have national identity cards. Punjabis fear the current edge they have in Pakistan’s politics on the strength of demographics may be diminished. In Balochistan, local political groups had demanded that the process be delayed till hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees are returned to Afghanistan. The refugees have been excluded from the process following a ruling by the Baloch High Court. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, tribal groups have opposed the census citing reverse migration of locals and influx of Afghan refugees.

But such challenges will always be there, given the influence of ethnic groups and provincial satraps in Pakistani politics. What is more important for Islamabad is to not give in to pressure to delay critical administrative decisions. The census is not merely an exercise of counting heads. It provides information on key indicators such as population density, gender ratio, literacy rate, financial conditions and employment numbers. As the 19-year-old census data are obsolete, it is crucial for the government to obtain an updated picture of the country’s socio-economic composition to make the right policy choices. The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with the census, even if under pressure from the court, also suggests an increasing sense of confidence in Islamabad. Pakistan is going through a relatively stable phase, economically and politically. The Sharif government doesn’t face any existential challenge and is set to become the second elected government in Pakistan’s history to finish its full term next year. Economic growth has also picked up. This allows Mr. Sharif to take some risks for long-term reforms. He should stay the course towards working out a realistic reallocation of resources and parliamentary seats to the provinces based on the new census data.

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