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Politics of Census in Pakistan

Waqas Younas ( is an author based in Lahore, Pakistan.

Prior to the long-delayed 2017 census, socio-economic planning in Pakistan had used obsolete data, widening the gulf between the rich and the poor. The new census has not drastically improved the situation either. The collected data remain incomplete, reflecting the infrastructural weaknesses of the underlying institutions. Many provinces have voiced their concerns about the recent census, but these have not been addressed. Without political resolve to compile and make available more exhaustive information, meaningful planning to address societal inequities in Pakistan cannot take place.

The author is thankful to the anonymous reviewer for valuable comments.

The best possible way to plan and effectively allocate resources for a country is to use census data. In Pakistan, allocations of financial resources to the provinces (using National Finance Commission or NFC awards), seats in the National Assembly, and even federal jobs are made on the basis of census data. In the absence of valid and current data, all this is based on guesswork.

Pakistan’s constitution requires that seats in the National Assembly be based on the last officially published census. Although there is a general agreement that census should be conducted every 10 years, the constitution does not stipulate any time frame. Changes in the Statistics Act also ensure that the government is not bound to hold the census at regular intervals.

After the Supreme Court forced the government, a census was conducted last year, following a hiatus of more than a decade and a half. The previous census had been conducted in 1998, and this makes one wonder about the state of socio-economic planning in the intervening years, which must have been based on outdated numbers. Unfortunately, the 2017 Census has raised more questions than it has answered. Thisarticle will begin with a brief discussion on the state of socio-economic planning before 2017. It will then talk about political ramifications of a delayed census.Finally, it will raise some concerns on the recent census and the state of population research in Pakistan.

Planning without Census

Given that Pakistan ranks poorly inHuman Development Indicators (published by the United Nations Development Programme), we can safely assume that public policy is not geared towards the well-being of the common man.

In the absence of current data, progress is usually determined by the powerful, who seldom intend to benefit the poor. This has led to an ever-widening gulfbetween the rich and the poor in Pakistan. Good health, decent education, and upward mobility are distant dreams for the poor. Even in urban power centres, they cannot get quality health andeducation services.

The healthcare system has both “urban” and “class” biases (Zaidi 1999). Research by the National Institute of Population Studies (NIPS) shows the grave inequity of healthcare access and the dismal state of women’s and children’s health inPakistan (NIPS 2016). This research indicates that the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Gilgit Baltistan, and Balochistan have caesarean section ratesbelow the World Health Organization’s minimum recommendation of 5%. It also shows that the use of healthcare facilities is positively correlated with education, residence in urban areas, and greater wealth; those without such attributes suffer the most. Malnutrition rates, particularly in Balochistan, are alarming as well.

The state of the educational system is also dismal. The “literacy rate is one of the lowest in the world and worse than countries which have per capita GNP equal to or close to Pakistan’s level” (Zaidi 1999). Roughly 25 million children aged between five and 16 are not in school (Zaidi 2014). Moreover, a major percentage of primary government schools operate without electricity, drinkingwater, or working toilets. The poor usually do not go to school, and when they do they face terrible circumstances.

Apart from accentuating inequality, the use of questionable performance indicators based on old data, by both federal and provincial governments, creates the illusion of prosperity. These overestimate progress, which will most likely be rendered insignificant when correct data is used (potentially because of a bigger population number in thedenominator).

Moreover, the roles of the Planning Commission and Central Development Working Party should be scrutinised, as they keep approving projects without current data. Is it not ironic that we keep spending billions, yet some areas consistently perform poorly in certain social indicators? The farther you go from the political power centres in each province, the greater the misery of the poor.

Clientelism and patronage have taken precedence over the need for updated data in policy formulation. The overall effect is the undeniable inequality that society faces today. A regular census would not guarantee the replacement of clientelism and patronage with more democratic policymaking, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction.

Political Landscape

Almost all provinces had concerns about the census, many of which remain unaddressed even after it was conducted in 2017.

In Sindh, grievances existed prior to the 2017 census. The chief minister of Sindh was surprised to find out thatinitially the census was not part of the agenda for a Council of Common Interests (CCI) meeting1 that was held prior to the census, though this was later included for discussion (Ghori 2016).

Political parties in Sindh were keen on the census and did not want any delay (Ghori 2016). Sindh’s chief minister also wanted provincial employees to act as enumerators and supervisors to manage the census, and to limit the role of the army.2 However, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the main opposition party, wanted the army to do the headcount to safeguard against ethnic prejudices. Other leaders emphasised that the 3.5 million immigrants in Sindh should be repatriated before the census to ensure that Sindhis were not reduced to aminority in their province. However, Sindh’s ruling party insisted that immigrants be counted because they are afinancial burden on the province, so that the due financial share could be asked from the federation (Ahmed et al 2016).

Some issues remain for Sindh evenafter the census. The reported population in the 2017 census appears low since many internally displaced people now reside in Karachi. It has been argued that “systematic undercounting” is also at play here, because household surveys by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) show a higher number of average persons in a household than that reported by the recent census (Karim 2017). Sindh also raised transparency concerns when the PBS declined the Sindh government’srequest for data to check its validity.Political parties in Sindh, such as thePakistan Peoples Party, think that censuserrors amount to an undermining of Sindh’s rights (Dawn 2017).

The KP province also had its concerns before the census was conducted. The KP census commissioner thought that the presence of huge numbers of army personnel required to conduct the census would present more problems than it would solve, as it could encourage terrorism andendanger lives of enumerators (Ahmed et al 2016). The KP government, however, insisted that the army’s presence was necessary to conduct a peaceful census.

Concerns remain in KP even after the census. Enumeration did not take place in refugee villages, as reported by census observers. This omission is not aligned with the United Nations Revised Census Principles and Recommendations of collecting, compiling, evaluating, analysing, and publishing demographic, economic, and social data of all persons in a country at a given time (Ahmed 2017).

Political leaders in Balochistan had serious concerns about the administration of the census prior to it as well. Balochi leaders wanted Afghan refugees repatriated, believing that these refugees had acquired Pakistani citizenship illegally and must not be counted (Ahmed et al 2016), since this would make Balochis a minority in their own province and deprive them of the NFC award due to them. It is important to note that Balochistan had suffered a hefty financial loss in the past due to very low population estimates in the census (Dawn 2003). It was important that the long-held grievances of Balochistan be addressed, as the province apparently suffers the most, as per some social indicators. These, however, remain unaddressed.

The security situation in Balochistan also presented a challenge for conducting an accurate census, as officialsreportedly faced difficulties during the 2013 elections when voter turnout was very low. Some Balochi leaders thought that deploying of the army in the exercise would resolve these security concerns. At the same time, however, some argued that the army’s presence may make people avoid the headcount because many did not trust the army (Ahmed et al 2016).

It seems that concerns remain in Balochistan as well, post-census. Population figures have reportedly been altered for political reasons, and Balochis still seem irritated about the inclusion of refugees as some of them have somehow acquired national identity cards (Zaman 2017). It is also hard to believe that a province that has seen mass exodus has shown a population surge in the census.

As far as Punjab is concerned, overrepresentation of members from Punjab in the CCI is still considered a conspiracy by some. Also, prior to the census, it was very strange that Punjab’s finance minister was content to make public policies based on data provided byPakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement (PSLM) and Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), which have been shown to contain unreliable data (Younas 2016).

A clear pattern emerges from all of this. Many stakeholders of almost every province raised concerns prior to the census. The fact that most of those concerns continue to remain unresolved is an indication of the lack of political will to arrive at a consensus around issues of national importance. Talking about issues is indeed the first step towards solving them. However, a more accurate and thorough census cannot happenunless major political forces show some seriousness and resolve to discuss and solve important concerns.

Concerns around Census 2017

After a lot of hue and cry, the census has finally been conducted and some data have been made public. However, there are further concerns raised from various quarters that need attention.

First is the issue of underestimation of urban populations. This issue was identified in the census of 1998. Underestimation misled policymaking with regard to property taxation and urban service delivery. At issue is the definition of an urban area, and it is still unclear what definition was used in 2017.3 This is problematic because it has been shown that the definition affects the count of urban populations, which has repercussions for political structures and service delivery (Reza 2002).

Second, a report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) raised some serious concerns related to confidentiality and the principle of universality (Ahmed 2017). It observed that “data collection by the military amounts to aparallel census and this is not internationally acceptable.” Accompanying army officers verified age records through SMS to the National Database and Registration Authority, which resulted in a breach of confidentiality. Their report also notes that exclusion of refugee or non-refugee residents of refugee camps from the census violates the principle ofuniversality.

The third issue is related to the missed opportunity of collecting data related to disabilities, internal migration, fertility, and other social indicators (Sethna and Zaman 2017). Without access to all this important data, some segments will be left unserved and treated unfairly, leaving them feeling alienated.

Fourth is the question of transparency and validation. Various segments of the media and the academia have requested the release of disaggregated data, so that all speculations about its validity can be put to rest. This request has been unsuccessful. Moreover, it appears that no post-enumeration surveys have been conducted, leaving little chance for cross-checking of census results.

The fifth concern is about weak infrastructure and lack of the decision-making capacity of the institutions involved. For example, the software that has been used in the census operation has been reported to be error-prone(Zaman 2017).

All these concerns should have beenaddressed prior to the census, considering it was an already delayed and expensive affair.

Population Science Research

The role of the NIPS is substantial when it comes to promoting the importance of the census in research and planning. The NIPS should have championed the cause of collecting and analysing a more diverse set of data than just the headcount.

Analyses of the 2017 census results have been very minimal. Moreover, data on the PBS website is not available in disaggregated form, different visualisations, or user-friendly formats, making it hard for average citizens and researchers to analyse it.

Further, a significant amount of observation, research, and planning is based on surveys like the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS), MICS, and PSLM, but the numbers in these surveys are not reliable (Younas 2016).

The PBS and NPS can work together to ensure that all concerns around the census, as outlined in the previous section, are addressed.


Any meaningful planning or resourceallocation will require policymakers to use up-to-date, complete, and valid sets of data. The constitution of Pakistan should make census operations at regular intervals mandatory. Moreover, the political leadership must listen to all stakeholders and resolve issues. Many of the issues surrounding the recent census would have been solved had there been a political will. Lastly, it is apparent that infrastructural capacities of institutions need to be strengthened.


1 The CCI is a constitutional body comprising the Prime Minister, three members nominated by the Prime Minister, and chief ministers of the four provinces. It is meant to resolve disputes between the federation and provinces.

2 The role of the army in conducting the census was strange in that this role is not mandated by the Constitution of Pakistan, and not many countries conduct census with the help of
their armies. For the army to do a separate headcount on its own was indeed odd (Sethna and Zaman 2017). An estimated PKR 14.5 billion were to be used to conduct the census, and the army reportedly received PKR 7.4 billion of that. The same amount or a fraction of it could be used to strengthen the Pakistan Bureau ofStatistics (PBS) so that it could modernise itself, train its employees, and create public awareness and better internet presence.

3 The author emailed the PBS for clarification, but never heard back.


Ahmed, Amin (2017): “UN Body Assails Census Data Sharing with Nadra, Army,” Dawn, 24 September, 1359691.

Ahmed, Maqbool et al (2016): “A Numbers Game: Is Census Delayed Justice Denied?” Herald, 2 September, 406. Dawn (2003): “Balochistan’s Case for NFC Award,” 15 December, .

— (2017): “Opposition Parties Suspicious of Census Results,” 27 August,

Ghori, Habib Khan (2016): “Sindh to Protest Exclusion of Census Issue from CCI Agenda,” Dawn, 24 February, 1241495.

Karim, Mehtab S (2017): “Missing People in Census,” Dawn, 17 October, .

NIPS (2016): “Women Wellbeing and Child Health: In Depth Analysis of Pakistan Demographic and Healthe Survey Data, 2012–13,” National Institute of Population Studies, Islamabad.

Reza, Ali (2002): “Underestimating Urbanisation,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 37, Nos 44–45, pp 4554–55,–45/special-articles/underestimating-urbanisation.html.

Sethna, Razeshta and Fahim Zaman (2017): “Population Census 2017: Why This Extensive Exercise Will Be Defective,” Dawn, 13 February,

Younas, Waqas (2016): “Unreliable Numbers,”Dawn, 29 September, Zaman, Fahim (2017): “Census 2017: How Can Flawed Results Have Any Credibility?” Dawn, 21 September, /1358516.

Zaidi, Mosharraf (2014): “How Pakistan Fails Its Children,” New York Times, 14 October,

Zaidi, S Akbar (1999): Issues in Pakistan’s Economy, Karachi: Oxford University Press.

Updated On : 23rd Mar, 2018


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