Censuses critical inputs to formulating policies


WEB DESK: The decision to defer the holding of the census during the Council of Common Interest (CCI) meeting under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is clearly a blow to the politico-economic structure of country.

Political, because population determines the electoral rolls for elections, in the event that there has been a change in demographics in any constituency (with obvious implications on political parties representation in the country’s national and provincial assemblies) and economic, because population continues to determine the bulk of each province’s revenue from the federal divisible pool even though population is no longer the sole criterion for distribution from the federal divisible pool after the 2010 NFC Award.

However, the Sindh Chief Minister’s assurance on the floor of the provincial assembly that the decision as to when to hold the census would be taken on the 25th of March during a scheduled CCI meeting should have eased concerns that the deferral was not for an indefinite period.

Shah did admit that the chief ministers of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had voiced their concerns with respect to the timing of the census suggesting registration of all migrants prior to the census exercise but added that he would try to convince them of the advisability of holding a census.

That the census, an exercise envisaged in the constitution to take place every ten years, is long overdue as is clearly evident from the fact that the last census that was accepted by all was held in 1981. The 1998 census findings were disputed. And subsequent to the advent of civilian governments in 2008 the census exercise has clearly become hostage to the politics of reconciliation amid general concerns that there has been a significant change in demographics since the last census was held – a change that may alter the political fortunes of individuals and political parties.

Clearly, post-CCI meeting there appeared to be less focus by provincial governments on the economic fallout of a census on provincial fortunes notably with respect to not only their share from the divisible pool but also the number of jobs in the federal government in the event of a change in demographics. However, Qaim Ali Shah stated in the assembly that Sindh had suggested during the CCI meeting to hold a census in phases that would ensure protection to the enumerators with the limited number of army personnel available.

The armed forces reportedly offered 80,700 men – not enough to protect 166,819 enumerators. The negative aspects of the failure to conduct a census are felt the most at the level of the common man as the federal and the provincial finance ministries have been formulating development plans which fail to take account of changing demographics. Any development project’s economic and internal rates of return determine its priority in the context of several competing projects and the number of beneficiaries is clearly an important component of these decisions. Since the last census was held, our governments, including the incumbent, project the national population growth rate from the previous census to ascertain key data and have, no doubt, been taking flawed decisions which accounts for several districts getting poorer with the passage of time.

Census results in other countries indicate that the poorer a region the higher the rate of population growth and in this context one may find the explanation behind the rising poverty levels in southern Punjab: the federal and provincial governments are simply not investing appropriate amounts for a rising population. Moreover, in the case of Karachi in particular, population growth rate is much higher than in any part of the country mainly because of the influx of economic migrants, particularly those from southern Punjab. People from these parts of Punjab alone are said to have outnumbered even Pushtoon in Karachi.

It was acknowledged in the CCI that the army’s presence during the census exercise is necessary not only for protection of the enumerators but also for credibility of the census. Thus the reason for the deferral of the census was the lack of availability of the required number of armed personnel, over stretched due to their engagement in the war on terror throughout the country, including the Zarb-e-Azb. This was confirmed by Minister for Inter-Provincial Co-ordination Riaz Hussain Pirzada who informed the Senate that census would be held in the current year and its delay is attributable to the ongoing operation Zarb-e-Azb.

To conclude, it is critical for the Sharif administration to hold the census preferably before the 2016-17 budgets are announced so that they may reflect the changing demographics. Formulating socio economic policies in a vacuum accounts for rising poverty levels in the country as well as flawed project prioritisation. And one would hope that the CCI meeting later this month would take Qaim Ali Shah’s suggestion of a phase-wise census seriously and begin the exercise without any further loss of time.

Source: Business Recorder