Pakistan will this week embark on the enormous task of conducting its first census in almost two decades, after years of bickering between politicians concerned about power bases and federal funding. Fast-growing Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, with an estimated 200 million people, but has not held a census since 1998, despite a constitutional requirement for one every decade.
The process starts on Wednesday and will deploy a team of more than 300,000 people and involve 55 million forms—a challenge in a country known for corruption and dysfunction. It will be the basis for revising political boundaries, parliamentary seat allocations and federal funding, while also giving a clearer picture about religious minority numbers in the Muslim-majority country as well as counting the transsexual population for the first time.
The census is a highly charged issue, coming one year before national parliamentary elections.
“Pakistan is not a country with a homogenous population,” said Muddassir Rizvi, head of programs at the Free and Fair Elections Network, “we are multiple ethnicities, more than 80 different languages are spoken. The count actually determines the political power of various ethnicities.”
The Punjab province, for example, could see its political grip weaken as a result of its population not rising at a similar rate to other provinces. “It is not a well received exercise by political actors. It’s only on the orders and insistence of the Supreme Court that this exercise is being undertaken,” said Rizvi.
The lack of political will has resulted in hasty preparations. The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) has been primed and ready on the starting blocks for 10 years, but the government only gave its green light less than three months ago—a short time to train staff and reassure parties and communities.
“There was very limited time to get everybody on board [and] ensure everyone feels the importance of being counted,” said Dr. Hassan Mohtashami, of the United Nations Population Fund.
Many within the country are unhappy about how the presence of approximately two million Afghan refugees, whose nationality is difficult to determine because of falsified documents, could skew the numbers if they get counted as Pakistanis belonging to the Pashtun ethnic group. In Balochistan, the country’s largest province by area but the least populated, a nationalist party has rejected the census, calling it tantamount to “suicide” because an influx of Pashtuns—both from other parts of Pakistan as well as from Afghanistan—would make the ethnic Baloch a minority in their own region.
The PBS will deploy some 119,000 people, including 84,000 enumerators: teachers and local officials who will go door-to-door to count homes and then individuals.
Pakistan’s Army meanwhile announced it would dispatch up to 200,000 troops for the exercise, including 44,000 participating directly in the census taking and making a parallel count.
Asif Bajwa, the PBS’s chief statistician, said the Army would act as ‘observers’ to ensure enumerators did not inflate local counting. “Being a local person, the enumerator is susceptible to pressures, because everybody knows that a larger population translates into more jobs, more seats, and more money for the province,” he said, adding each census-taker will be accompanied by a military counterpart. But that has created some disquiet for the U.N. who are concerned about the Army’s role as parallel data collectors.
“The administration of any kind of other questionnaire during the census is [infringing] on the principle of confidentiality,” said Mohtashami.
The first census phase will take place from March 15 to April 15, the second from April 25 to May 25, and final results are expected by the end of July.
Here are some facts about the upcoming census:
A third sex
For the first time, transsexual people will be counted separately, according to representatives of this historically recognized but often persecuted community in Pakistan. The forms had been printed well in advance of court decisions to include them in the count. Now enumerators have been informed that those surveyed will have three numeric choices for their gender: 1 for men, 2 for women, 3 for those who declare themselves transsexuals.
Only nine languages
Language is considered an essential tool in evaluating the makeup of multi-ethnic Pakistan—but only nine of the country’s estimated 70 will be listed, to the dismay of many communities. No regional languages from sparsely populated Gilgit-Baltistan will be included nor will Gujrati—spoken by some Muslim immigrants from India who believe the lack of recognition will drive their mother-tongue toward oblivion.
The census will provide an insight into the true number of religious minorities, especially Christians and Hindus. Estimates are approximate and disputed, ranging from 2 to 10 million for the former and 2.5 to 4.5 million for the latter. Citizens can declare themselves Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Ahmadi—a branch of Islam considered heretic by the state.
Otherwise, they can be “members of scheduled castes”—members of marginalized Hindu families, or “other.” There are no separate options for Sikhs, Parsis or Baha’i.
One box asks households how many toilets they have—a particularly salient question in Pakistan, where the United Nations estimates up to 40 percent of people defecate in the open air with dramatic health consequences, especially for children.
The census gives two nationality options: Pakistani or foreign. But the Army, which will conduct a parallel count, plans to be more precise mainly because of the country’s Afghan refugees who are accused of everything from terrorism to trafficking.
Many local officials fear Afghans could be counted as local and skew demography in favor of ethnic Pashtuns, whose political parties would benefit as a result. On the other hand, the estimated six million Pakistanis working abroad will not be counted. No information will be collected on internal migration—necessary to assess the political weight of a province where many people have moved for economic reasons.
This information will be the subject of a separate subsequent survey based on a large sample of the population, according to authorities.