Census fears

By I.A. Rehman 
There are fears that an objective census can upset the existing balance of power. A correct count could alter the allocation of NFC funds and seats in the National Assembly. — APP/File Photo
There are fears that an objective census can upset the existing balance of power. A correct count could alter the allocation of NFC funds and seats in the National Assembly. — APP/File Photo
The postponement of the house listing operation, the first part of the decennial census, is not unexpected. The headcount scheduled for October this year may also have to be put off. This once again shows how fragile Pakistan’s constitutional order is. 

The chief census commissioner had claimed in April that preparation of questionnaires and training of the staff for the 2009 census had been completed. The house census was to begin on April 17 and the headcount in October. Later, the date for the house survey was shifted to April 28 and then to May 15. Eventually the commissioner announced an indefinite postponement and said the operation “will now be held in consultation with the Inter-Provincial Coordination Committee”, a condition that should have been met at the outset.The reasons offered for putting off the process in April included a delay in the receipt of donor money. Similar excuses for avoiding a census have been offered before. The message is that the state has no resources to carry out an exercise on which the constitutional order critically depends. 

Any state needs to know how many mouths it has to feed, how many hands are to be put to work and what plans should be made to meet the challenge of population growth. But in Pakistan the decennial census is of much greater significance for the democratic system. It is on the basis of population that the provinces are allocated seats in the National Assembly and their shares of divisible taxes are fixed. 

However, the census has always been dirty politics in our part of the world. My earliest recollection of the census (1941) is a Muslim school teacher’s declaration that he had registered scores of non-existent Muslims at sarais (motels) and bus stands under the system of registering a person wherever he was on the day of the big count. Such incidents in a non-Muslim majority part of Punjab and similar acts by non-Muslims where they were in a minority were examples of the disaster caused by communalising politics. 

People were sober during the first years of independence. The 1951 census was held and useful information about post-partition demography gained. The 1961 census, too, as far as one can recall, was not really controversial. But by the time the 1972 census was held petty politics had entered the game. To some extent the final count was said to have been manipulated by transferring the increase in population in one area to another. The 1981 census was held in a climate of fear generated by Gen Zia’s state oppression. 

The 1991 census became a victim of partisan pulls when it was alleged that the house count in Sindh had been grossly inflated and the headcount was postponed. The deferred task was not resumed until 1997. Again the count was postponed. However, this time the delay did not go beyond 1998. A census was carried out after the chief minister’s fears of political losses had been allayed. 

The census was due last year but the government postponed it by a year. It took the significant decision to hold the count under the army’s supervision. According to a newspaper report, never contradicted, some of Prime Minister Gilani’s cabinet colleagues have taken exception to this decision and it may be reversed. One of their objections in a press report that an army-supervised cen

sus would invite doubts about the accuracy of the count is amusing. In fact, one can question the accuracy of a census managed by political manipulators. 

However, there can be valid reasons for avoiding the defence forces’ involvement in civil matters. The decisive question is whether in the present state of political and ethnic polarisation the civil administration has the will and capacity to hold an objective census. 

The reason is fear of upsetting the existing balance of power. A correct count could alter the allocation of NFC funds and seats in the National Assembly. These fears are quite tangible in Punjab and Frontier as their population has been growing at a slower rate than Sindh’s and Balochistan’s. As for Fata, its representation in the Assembly had been reduced after a census revealed a decline in its population but former President Ghulam Ishaq ruled against any cut in Fata’s share of seats. There is good reason to believe that the various power blocs are preparing to secure census results favourable to them. 

Most of these factions’ briefs are secret, and likely to remain so. Prominent among those who have taken up a position are the Dalits. Many groups and individuals belonging to the scheduled castes have demanded that they should be fully counted and that seats be reserved for them in legislatures separate from upper caste Hindus. But this issue needs to be taken up in the context of the broader injustice that is their lot in this country. 

Representatives of women do not seem to have spoken up yet. No census exercise appears to have done justice to their numbers. Since men provide information about their family members women are under-enumerated in many areas. 

At a time when faith in the quality of governance is receding, it is doubtful if traditional approaches to the census will work. The country may be facing problems similar to those that forced the authors of Lebanon’s constitution to avoid fears of a census by distributing main state offices permanently on the basis of belief and sect. Some people have already referred to the Indian design of fixing, for certain periods, states’ representation in the Lok Sabha. 

It is time to take stock of the argument advanced by independent scholars that the census format developed during the colonial period deepened the differences on the grounds of belief in South Asia and laid the basis of communal politics. That the census can be a means of dividing the people cannot be dis- puted. And yet a census cannot be avoided for long. 

This may not be the right time for radical ideas but it should not be impossible to think of a census without questions that undermine the unity of the Pakistani people. Pakistan will have no future if it lacks the courage to attempt radical departures from its worn-out and controversial traditions.
DAWN: Thursday, 02 Jul, 2009