The politically challenging census began on Wednesday after a very long gap subsequent to the federal government’s assurance to the Supreme Court that the first phase of the census would be held from 15th March till 15th May leading to the disposing of the suo motu case.
The politics behind the census results are not unique to Pakistan and acknowledged the world over with the US Census Bureau stating on its website that census “information affects the number of seats your state occupies in the US House of Representatives”. However, the delays in conducting a census are certainly not the norm.
A change in demographics can change the number of seats of any province in the National Assembly and a change in demographics in any particular constituency can change the voting strength of any particular party. Article 50 (5) of Pakistan’s constitution sets population as the sole basis for allocation of seats and while civilian governments have shied away from holding a census so as not to ruffle the feathers of their own members and/or coalition partners yet military dictators have shown no such sensibility.
In Pakistan, the National Finance Commission (NFC) award is largely based on population; 82 percent weightage was given to population in the last NFC award. A change in demographics would therefore change the actual share of each province in the divisible pool. Punjab as the most populous province has had the lion’s share in the NFC award and there are serious concerns in the smaller provinces, particularly Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), where the ruling PML-N does not form a government, that the federal government may be tempted to alter the results of a census to benefit Punjab. This view has been strengthened considerably by two factors.
Firstly, the Federal Finance Ministry’s penchant for data manipulation through the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) that comes under its minister’s administrative control. Independent economists have been citing a marked augmentation in the failure of PBS to reconcile data with other government and industry’s data sources since PML (N) took over the reins of government.
The Census Commissioner is a staff member of the PBS and in this context, the Sindh Chief Minister had requested the Finance Minister in a letter to make public raw data that would be collected and later collated by the provincial education department staff. Dar refused to do so stating that (i) Co-ordination and Vigilance Committees have been set up that would ensure data integrity; (ii) data would not be processed at a district level; and (iii) the law prohibits sharing of data. These statements are unlikely to lend a comfort level to the smaller provinces.
Secondly, there is a belief within the federal government that the declining share of the centre in the divisible pool is not appropriate given the Centre’s rising expenditure requirements. Article 160 (3A) stipulates that the share of the provinces in each award of NFC shall not be less than the share given to the provinces in the previous award.” To circumvent this clause, Dar proposed as per the Balochistan and KPK members of the NFC award (Qaiser Bengali and Professor Ibrahim Khan, respectively) that provinces contribute an additional 7 percent of their resources from the divisible pool – 3 percent for national security fund and 4 percent for development of special areas of Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan – a proposal that was shot down by these provinces. Hence the delay in the NFC award prompting many to conclude that the passage of the NFC award is highly unlikely till after the 2018 elections.
To conclude, census results have political as well as economic implications and disturbingly in this instance too political considerations have over-ridden economic implications – be they civilian or military rulers. One must, however, not lose sight of the fact that every economic activity has a bearing on political outcomes.