Obstacles and Politics Surrounding Pakistan’s Digital Census

The proof of design of the first-ever digital census has been successfully established.

According to the Minister for Planning, Development, and Special Initiatives, Prof. Ahsan Iqbal, “The existing [NFC] formula is regressive, as it provides 80pc weight to population and actually incentivizes population growth,” which has led to provinces trying to manipulate census data. Although the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics has been working on consistently identifying gaps, over and undercounting, abnormalities, and other irregularities, holding a fair and transparent census has become an unexpectedly bigger challenge.

Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, soon into the field operations realized issues and shared them regularly during the Census Monitoring Committee meetings, and engaged with all stakeholders to address these gaps. Despite five extensions, the provinces are asking for more time. Hence, revealing their inefficiency in conducting the census and at the same time their intentions of manipulating the census count to abnormal levels. It is horrifying to see the politics being played on a process that defines the future of the people of Pakistan and the progress of the country. How much more are politicians going to play with the lives of the poor for the gain of the political elite.

The Chief Census Commissioner and senior management of the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics are seen running pillar to post engaging stakeholders, and provincial governments to ensure a transparent and credible census but as the Minister of PD&SI, Ahsan Iqbal shared, it seems that even the holding of an authentic census has become close to impossible as “there exist serious fault lines in two provinces Sindh and Balochistan” and no meeting points because of urban-rural and Baloch-Pakhtun divide, respectively, the minister said, adding that every segment wanted to show its higher population to have greater say in matters of employment, finance, representation and so on.

The Chief Census Commissioner has written to the Chief Secretaries stating that “by virtue of the digital census, it is possible to detect irregularities in the census either due to under-enumeration or over-enumeration due to biases or lax behavior. It is most important that data should be collected in an accurate and transparent manner.” He urged them to ensure that ACs/DCs were doing all that was required to hold a transparent and credible census.

The proof of design of the first-ever digital census has been successfully established. There have been no technology failures, data has been received in real-time and the digital systems have picked up anomalies taking place in field operations conducted by provinces in a timely and accurate manner. It is the largest and most successful census digitization design in South Asia and has been implemented seamlessly. This is a monumental task and is a moment of history and great pride for the people of Pakistan. However, it is marred by the dirty politics of politicians only interested in personal gains.

Currently, the Chief Census Commissioner has issued directions for verification and rectification of the census data. This exercise is to be finished by May 30, 2023.

In the past also the NFC award for distribution of resources has led to stakeholders rejecting the census results. It seems that politics will yet again jeopardize the future of the people and the country. Therefore, one is inclined to agree with Mr. Iqbal that there will be no solution to the authenticity of census data unless it was delinked from resource distribution. The minister, who was also assisted by the chief census commissioner, said the population growth under the new census was about 2.7pc compared to 2.4pc under the sixth national census. “This has very serious ramifications and Pakistan will become a joke,” he warned, adding that India had delinked the population from resource distribution for two decades and made progress.

Another official said the population growth was actually 2.8pc. The count showed over 3pc growth in Sindh and an even higher rate in some districts of Balochistan like 22.3pc in Punjgur. It increased by 2.71pc in Islamabad’s capital territory as well.

The census commissioner said the higher population growth and count would mean that the per capita income of Pakistanis would decline, the country could fall to lower middle-income states, foreign direct investment would suffer and all other social indicators would worsen.

“No enemy needs to pull us down, this population growth alone will do,” the Minister of PD&SI remarked, reiterating that the government would have to separate the population from NFC and incentivize provinces to demographic and social improvement.

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