The politics of numbers

Mushtaq Rajpar

Census results are like a political bombshell in the country. The exercise is surrounded with controversies,
with the reliability of the data questionable and many citing first-hand experiences of not having
been counted.

Unlike in many other countries where the census is just seen as statistical data to be used for economic
planning and highlighting the overall socio-economic profile of the country, in Pakistan it becomes a
crucial issue because the country’s financial revenues are distributed on the basis of population, and
representation in the National Assembly is also based on it. In many federal structures in other parts
of the world, resources are not largely distributed on the basis of population.

The Election Commission of Pakistan has already announced its plan to reconstitute National Assembly
seats under the new census data, which will result in a reduction of Punjab’s share in the National
Assembly and increase Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan’s shares.

Pakistan’s smaller provinces, Sindh and Balochistan, were suspicious of the census result mainly because
of the presence of Afghan refugees; both provinces did not want them to be counted in their population
due to fear of being turned into a minority in their own historic homelands. In Balochistan, PkMAP was
in favour of including Afghan refugees as citizens; and many of the refugees already have their national
identity cards in Quetta and other Pakhtun dominated areas of Balochistan.

The preliminary census results, as presented in the Council of Common Interests (CCI), were approved
all four provinces and neither Sindh nor Balochistan raised any objections to the results in the meeting.
The CCI is the constitutional forum to approve or disapprove census results. In the past, due to dis-
agreements over census results, at least three such census exercises have been rejected, but this time
all four chiefs seemed to have agreed to the census results.

With the Census 2017 results, Pakistan has become a nation of 207.7 million with a 57 percent increase
in population since the last census was held. The unacceptable population growth rate issue is not under
debate; no one wants to discuss and understand it. For the mainstream media it is not even issue to be
debated. The question is: how long will we continue to tolerate this trend in growth?

The government kept telling us that the population growth rate was at 1.9 percent. The census results
have exposed the complete policy failure, since the growth rate is 2.4 percent. There are not many countries
where this kind of trend is seen in contemporary times (India’s population growth rate is 1.2 percent).
Billions of rupees were spent on population control programmes, and NGOs and international bodies were
involved. What happened? The people responsible for running these programmes for years should be
penalised for their utter failure. If the national and provincial governments fail to take notice of this issue,
the Supreme Court needs to. Do we even remember how much USAID and other foreign donors spent on
these population control programmes?

Sindh’s population as a ratio of the total has not increased. Many in Sindh have been relieved to see this
as they had feared that Sindhi speakers could be turned into a minority in their own province. Punjab has
lost 2.7 population as their share in the country’s total population from 55.6 percent to 52.9 percent.
Punjab has not lost this much share in the past six census exercises held in the country. Punjab’s
population, in absolute terms, has gone up from 70 million to 110 million with a 2.13 population growth
in province. Experts cite Afghan refugees as a key factor in the increase of KP’s population share in the
country as its share increased by 1.3 percent.

For some, Afghan settlements in Balochistan seem to be part of a plan to turn Baloch natives into a
minority. Balochistan’s share in the country’s population has risen by one percent, which is unprecedented.
Experts believe Quetta and Peshawar’s population has doubled in the past 19 years but Karachi and
Lahore’s did not.

Sindhi nationalists, the MQM, and some members of the ruling PPP in Sindh have rejected the census
results, terming them as doctored so as to deny them increased representation and share in the National
Assembly and fiscal resources. However, some Sindh-based experts reject these concerns as unfounded
and without any solid evidence.

Karachi’s population grew by 6.7 million in the past 19 years, but the ratio remained the same as was
seen in 1998. The Afghan refugees living in Karachi are part of the data, except those living in a few
camps. Since the 1998 census, Karachi’s population remained one third of Sindh’s total population, and
the status quo has continued in the latest census. The 1990s’ census reflected the massive influx of the
Pakhtun population in the city. But now the population of Quetta and Peshawar has doubled, and Punjab’s
Faisalabad has reached 2.1 million from 0.8 million. So, urbanisation in other parts of the country has
reduced the pressure on Karachi.

Contrary to the widely held perception and some projections that Karachi’s population would be over
20 million, its ratio vis-a-vis the rest of the province remained unchanged. This could be due to factors
such as the law and order situation, ethnic killings, strikes, political violence, political threats from
dominant groups etc. The census result also shows that Karachi has its charm for people of other
provinces to come to the city for employment. And Karachi’s affluent population has migrated to
Islamabad and abroad for work and due to security concerns in the city. Sindhi speakers from other
districts of the province have also moved to Karachi in large numbers. The law-and-order situation in
the northern parts of Sindh has also pushed the middle class and the business community to
move to the city for better education and business opportunities.

Sindh has become Pakistan’s largest urbanised province with 52 percent people now living in urban
areas. Over 60 union councils in various districts have been converted into town committees thus
qualifying the definition of urban population. This change could help reduce the urban-rural divide
as cities are becoming more diverse and inclusive.

More details about the census results are yet to be disclosed; they too will require analysis and could
possibly generate new tensions.

Source: thenews.com.pk, September 11, 2017

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