After two decades, a census in Pakistan. The picture is grim

Contentious, disputed, but finally completed, 2017 survey reveals a country confronted by unchecked population growth

After a delay of almost two decades, the Pakistan government has finally completed its sixth population census, but only after the country’s Supreme Court ordered it to do so.

Governments, including that of the recently-defenestrated Nawaz Sharif, whose political base is in Punjab province, had long dragged their heels, for a number of reasons. They cited the law and order situation in the country – and indeed census workers have been killed in various locations. The Sharif government also claimed there were not enough people or funds to conduct the exercise.

The higher court gave the government a deadline, however, and it duly complied. Around 118,000 government “enumerators” – flanked by some 200,000 police and soldiers – went from home to home across 63 districts over the course of 70 days.

Electoral seats in Pakistan’s parliament are assigned using population density data, and with rural populations fluctuating due to urbanization, many political families fear losing influence. The census was therefore viewed by some as a threat to the old order. In a number of instances, census staff were attacked by unidentified persons and some lost their lives. Despite all this, the exercise was completed on time and the results were tabulated soon after.

In August, the provisional results were released and the numbers confirm what had long been feared – that all is not well in Pakistan. The country’s population has ballooned by 57% in the last two decades to 207.8 million – making it one of the world’s most populous nations.

The census revealed an acceleration in the population growth rate of two provinces – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan – in particular, as well as the restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). In comparison, growth in Punjab and Sindh – Pakistan’s two largest provinces – slowed compared to previous results. According to the census, Pakistan today has 106.45m males, 101.31m females and 10,418 transgender people. This was the first time transgender people have been counted.

The data itself has been questioned by various quarters. There have been protests, with many saying that the the results “favor” Punjab. The Sindh legislative assembly passed a resolution questioning the accuracy of the provisional results. It is feared the arguments and disagreements will grow louder in days to come.

Sindh province insists that its growth has been higher than in Punjab but that this has been obscured in the results owing to political reasons. At stake are central government resources and benefits. That the census was conducted with a PML-N government in power allows political opponents to say that the party’s home base, Punjab, was favored.

Sindh’s grievances do not end there. The results show that it is the country’s most urbanized province, with almost 50% of its population living in cities. Unlike other provinces, Sindh has long been divided, politically, on urban-rural lines. Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party holds sway in the rural areas, while the MQM party has its vote bank in Sindh’s cities. Until now, the PPP has managed to keep control of the province, thanks to more seats being allocated for rural areas. That will now change, and may lead to tension between Sindh’s two prominent communities: the Sindhis who vote for the PPP, and the Urdu-speaking refugees who vote for the MQM.

If it’s a case of an urban-rural divide in one province, another is split according to language. Resource-rich Balochistan is divided between those who are ethnically Baloch and those who are Pakhtoon. Each claims to outnumber the other and demands greater representation and funding based on this. In the past, the province has witnessed rioting because of this tension, and in fact the issue is so sensitive that the government has yet to release provisional data from the province.

In all, the 2017 survey suggests three key trends: unchecked population growth, galloping urbanization and an unusually large number of young people, with 54% of Pakistanis under 24. The bigger challenge, observers say, is not provincial distribution, but the sheer number of people who have to be managed.

Pakistan dropped its family planning program a decade back and breakneck population growth has resulted. There is no long term planning on how to deal with the rising number of young men and women who will enter the workforce in the coming years. Nor is there much in the way of a vision of how to address the needs of the different sections of the population.

The emphasis in Pakistan continues to be on the military. “The army gets the lion share on funds, while money spent on basics like health education is like the crumbs,” said one academic, Pervez Hoodhoy. The bigger issues, he added, are simply being ignored.


Categories: News, South Asia

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