There’s more to the census than just counting people

Almost every piece of data in the country finds its way back to an activity that we seemingly do not care much about

Is this your house? How many people live here? How many of them are your family members? These were some of the myriad of queries that Pakistanis were asked by a person with a tablet, accompanied by guard, on a mundane day in spring of 2023. It was not until August that the responses to the queries were revealed. Turns out, Pakistan’s population had soared from 207 million to 241 million. Witty remarks were exchanged about how ‘Decemberistan’ was contributing to the population boom, while politicians bellowed for recounts in various corners of the nation.

These seemingly innocuous questions mask the monumental significance of what the nation achieved with this undertaking. It marked the seventh occasion in Pakistan’s 76-year history that the country had conducted a census and had charted its population.

The infrequency and benign nature of the undertaking belies its importance in the nation’s governance. Rarely does a state adopt the stance that it does not wish to know the actual number and conditions of residents in various parts of its country, or that conducting a census itself may ignite uncontrollable discord among its people. Then, there is Pakistan.

The reasons for the dearth of our censuses are aplenty. They range from more important administrative issues, to political hostilities, and sometimes lack of the requisite capacity altogether. The indifference to the census that successive governments have shown is nothing short of sinful. This is because the census is not merely the plumbing for our political system during an election, but it is also the bedrock upon which all the data that we utilise to comprehend Pakistan is constructed.

So, how vital is this endeavour that we treat with blasé? And what does the census influence, beyond just the petty squabbling that politicians engage in on prime time news?

Census 101 

A population census — or a population and housing census, as it is also known — is a stock taking of human resources of a country and their living conditions at one point of time. It provides basic data on demographic, social and economic variables about each person and each housing unit.

Politically, the census is a sovereign enterprise; countries tally the populace within their sovereign territory in accordance with their own legislation and laws, and for policy and planning purposes. It also forms one component of the preparatory work for elections in Pakistan, albeit diverging from the standard practice globally. The execution of a decennial census is a relatively straightforward affair in most countries: the state mobilises its bureaucracy of enumerators every decade to determine how many individuals reside within its borders and under what conditions they live.

It was not always like this. The census was established in the region that is now Pakistan during the British Raj. The inaugural census, confined to what were then termed the North Western Provinces, was conducted in December 1852, with a reference date of January 1, 1853. Subsequent intermittent censuses were held until 1881, when the first comprehensive census was undertaken. Thereafter, the British carried out a regular census with increasing proficiency at ten-year intervals. Following independence in 1947, the nascent government established the Pakistan Census Organisation, which enumerated both East and West Pakistan in the 1951 and 1961 census reports. Due to political conditions culminating in the December 1971 war with India over the secession of East Pakistan, the census was deferred to September 1972. The subsequent decennial census was conducted in March 1981.

The government of Pakistan, then under the leadership of Benazir Bhutto, had scheduled the next decennial census from November 22 to December 16, 1990. However, before it could be carried out, Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s Party government were ousted from power. Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League rescheduled the census to be conducted in March 1991, the following year.

In 1992, the government postponed the census until the spring of 1993, citing catastrophic floods as the primary reason for the delay, but no new make-up date was given. The year 1993 was virtually marred by political turmoil, with a major rift between the prime Minister and the president over which office wielded supreme authority. Benazir Bhutto’s subsequent government, elected in October 1993, decreed the following month that it would finally hold the census between March and April 1994. The dates were then shifted to between October 23 and November 1, 1994, but Bhutto’s government subsequently cited inclement weather and again postponed the census. However, before the census could be conducted, Bhutto’s government was dismissed once again.

Sharif’s government finally scheduled the census to commence on October 18 and last until October 31, 1997. A mere two weeks before it was due to start, the government postponed the census once again, citing administrative reasons. The census was finally carried out from March 2 to March 18, 1998.

The elusive sixth national census was postponed several times due to various reasons. It was originally scheduled to take place in 2001, and later in 2008 and 2010, but none of those plans could materialise. A futile attempt in March 2011 was scrapped, allegedly after discovering ‘statistical anomalies’ during the preliminary phase of a housing census. The April 2012 round of census counts was also deemed ‘unreliable’ and discarded.

The Council of Common Interests (CCI) finally sanctioned the sixth census in March 2016, but it ended up taking place from March 15 to May 25 in 2017. However, the 2017 census was fraught with difficulties.

The outcomes of the 2017 census ignited controversy and were met with vehement resistance from the Sindh government, and several political parties such as the Pakistan People’s Party, Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, and the Pak Sarzameen Party. They collectively rejected the final results and demanded a recount. In response to the persistent opposition, the CCI held back the publication of the final results for years.

At the heart of the issue was Karachi. The official figures, revealing a populace teetering around the 16 million mark, were met with a wave of scepticism and dispute. The parties in question vociferously argued that this estimate grossly undervalued the city’s true population, with a chorus of voices asserting that the actual tally soared beyond 20 million.

Furthermore, the Pakistan People’s Party, the party heading the Sindh government, contended that the entire province of Sindh had been undercounted. They maintained that the official figure of 48 million was a far cry from the projected 61 million plus, a number that other agencies, including Unicef, had previously cited. 

At last, in April 2021, the CCI surmounted the impasse and endorsed the final results of the 2017 census, stipulating that Pakistan would conduct another census before the ten-year deadline, and the results of that census would determine the constituencies for the 2023 general election.

By February 2022, a schedule for the census had been devised, predicated on the enumeration taking place in August 2022. However, the plan to execute the census was shifted to between October 15 and November 15, before it ultimately took place in March 2023.The postponements were predominantly ascribed to the cataclysmic floods of 2022, which served as a formidable obstruction to the indispensable fieldwork. However, they were also imputed to ‘unavoidable circumstances’. 

The immediate economic decision making a census influences 

Is there more to a census than just the delimitation process for the elections? Yes.

The census wields a significant influence over the allocation of funds to the federating units by the NFC. The NFC award, a fiscal distribution framework, endeavours to equitably distribute financial resources between the federal government (vertical distribution) and the provinces (horizontal distribution). The NFC award encapsulates the division of taxes accrued by the federal government, forming a divisible pool. This pool encompasses taxes on income — inclusive of corporate tax, sales tax, and export duties — among others.

The quantum of funds that are disbursed to the provinces hinges on population, revenue, poverty, and inverse population density. Of these factors, population accounts for 82% of the funds that are to be received. Consequently, the census determines how provincial and federal governments will chart their financial planning till the next census is conducted.

“The allocation of funds across the provinces remains predominantly determined by their population size. The seventh national financial commission (NFC) award addressed persistent controversies of revenue sharing and adopted a more comprehensive multi-criteria formula — yet, population still constitutes 82% of the ultimate disbursement”  articulates Dr Sajjad Akhtar, a former chief statistician at the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS).

The next salient factor of the census is ascertaining the quota for recruitment to all civil posts in the federal government. The Pakistani government remains the single largest employer of individuals across the country, and therefore these quotas are more important than one can fathom.

“The quota is especially crucial in Sindh, where the Sindh government’s employment quotas are subdivided according to the proportion of population of Sindh Urban and Sindh Rural,” Akhtar elaborates.

These are the immediate economic ramifications of the census. Then there are the ancillary implications.

The secondary economic decision making a census influences 

A census is a comprehensive source of information on the demographic, social, and economic attributes of each individual and each dwelling unit. The census covers a wide range of topics, such as demographic and social features, educational attainment, geographical and migration patterns, economic status, and fertility and mortality rates among the general population. It also collects additional data, such as disabilities, national identification cards, and household members living abroad.

This is where a whole array of benefits from the census emerges.

The census aids with various essential aspects, such as employment planning, government revenues, education provision, health services, transportation projects, and housing. However, that is merely the tip of the iceberg. The importance of a census is better understood when we look at how a government operates in the absence of it.

Imagine ordering a bespoke suit without giving the measurements. It sounds ludicrous, right? How could one possibly craft something that fits without knowing certain vital details: age, size, and shape? Sadly, this is what has been occurring in Pakistan for decades due to the absence of an updated census.

“Between two censuses, for instance, from 1998 to 2017, the National Institute of Population Studies produces annual population estimates using a sophisticated model. Nevertheless, these estimates rely on the growth rates derived from the census base year, such as 1998, and entail a margin of error. The actual figures from the census are parameters, and hence definitive.” explains Akhtar.

Does it matter if the implied rate, and the actual rate differ from one another? Going into the 2017 census, the highest estimate for the population was at around 200 million, whilst the actual number was 207 million.

The stark contrast between the projected and actual population growth rates necessitated a greater allotment of funds to human development initiatives. This implied that, in the absence of the census, the government would have constructed fewer schools, hospitals, and so on. While the discrepancy of seven million — from 200 to 207 million — may appear negligible, it represents a colossal number of people that the government had overlooked in its planning and budgeting. Without the census, they would have faced a dearth of facilities, along with a cascade of adverse effects on their well-being and those associated with them. 

The census also influences more macro-level decisions that we might not readily consider, such as trade policies and our balance of payments.

“Population parameters profoundly influence trade balance, education, and health ratios. A burgeoning population necessitates increased food imports and/or diminishes food surpluses available for exports, unless productivity rises accordingly,” Akhtar expounds.

Governments are not shackled to reactive policymaking when scrutinising census data either. All the aforementioned forecasts have discussed the needs of a populace that a government will have to address due to increases or decreases in population. However, it can also aid countries in determining where they aspire to be.

All per capita metrics, such as income per capita or gross domestic product per capita, can be predicted using future economic and population growth forecasts. If a government wishes to attain certain levels of productivity per person, then it knows what measures it would need to implement going forward if it already knows the rate of population growth the country is poised to experience.

The knock-on benefits of the census 

Any institution looking to record statistical data involving Pakistan finds great utility in the census. The main beneficiaries of the census are the PBS, the SBP, and international financial institutions like the IMF.

Let us begin with the PBS itself. The census is the cornerstone of every other survey the PBS conducts.

“The sampling framework that the PBS employs for its other surveys is also derived from the latest census. The census has a ripple effect on every survey the PBS conducts through the sampling framework,” explains Akhtar.

To put this into perspective, the PBS gauges the country’s inflation statistics for starters. The PBS also assesses industrial activity through the large-scale manufacturing survey. The PBS also carries out the standard and living measurement survey. It also evaluates industrial activity through the large-scale manufacturing survey. Furthermore, it undertakes the standard and living measurement survey. These three surveys alone sculpt the economic planning for all policymakers. The census, through the sampling framework, essentially dictates the lion’s share of the PBS’ endeavours.

Then, there is the SBP. “The State Bank collects its own data independently through its statistics department; however, when we are crafting our data and data collection, the PBS’ data serves as the foundational data that we utilise,” expounds Kazi Abdul Muktadir,  former deputy governor of the SBP.

So, what does the SBP use the PBS’ data for?

“The most immediate application for the PBS’ census data in conjunction with the SBP’s own data is developmental finance, housing finance, consumer finance, and microfinance,” Muktadir clarifies.

Similarly, the International Monetary Fund, in particular, utilises not only the census data but also other surveys conducted by the PBS for its own staff assessment reports. Just to jog your memory, the supplementary surveys are also predicated on the census.

Consequently, some of the most influential financial institutions in Pakistan’s financial landscape utilise the census for their own evaluation and understanding of the country prior to devising their solutions.

Keeping the treasure buried

Census enumeration in Pakistan carries a political charge that is perhaps more potent than in other countries. It forms the bedrock upon which political boundaries are redrawn, national and provincial assembly seats are apportioned among provinces and regions, and inter-provincial resources are allocated. Hence, whenever it is conducted, there will inevitably be someone who is disgruntled.

The most conspicuous issue with the current census is the discrepancy in the numbers pertaining to Balochistan. The population of Balochistan was estimated to be around 22 million in various updates during the census process. However, in the final report sanctioned by the relevant authority, the population of Balochistan was slashed to 15 million. If the final population had concurred with the original projection, the province could have gained an additional 22 seats in the National Assembly.

Another bone of contention is the situation in Sindh, where critics of the census claim that the average family size has been understated. They argue that if the headcount had been consistent with what UNICEF’s, for instance, discovered, then Sindh’s population would be higher by roughly 10%.

Lastly, there is the predicament of the census delaying elections and prolonging the caretaker governments. Invoking the census results, the electoral watchdog resolved to finalise the process of fresh delimitation of both national and provincial assembly constituencies by 14 December, over a month past the constitutionally stipulated deadline for conducting general elections. This was in spite of Article 224 of the constitution obliging the watchdog to conduct general elections within three months of the National Assembly’s dissolution.

All of this sparks debates about whether there can be revisions to how we conduct the census in the first place. 

The PBS is aware of all the grievances, and strove to enhance the trust people had in its census this time compared to the one in 2017. The 2023 census was subjected to a third-party audit — a feature conspicuously absent in the 2017 edition — which, in theory, lends greater credibility to its findings than its predecessor. Furthermore, the PBS unveiled a comprehensive field operation plan, thereby making all standard operating procedures transparent to the public. For the first time, it extended a self-enumeration facility to the public and equipped the provincial authorities with online dashboards, thereby rendering data accessible to them as it was being collated. Its complaint centre remained operational round the clock, and its social media handles routinely disseminated provisional results and other details.

This is not to say that more could not be done .For starters, the 2023 census did not make all the detailed information readily available for public consumption, which only fuelled the doubts that people had. As to how these doubts manifest going forward is anyone’s guess. However, it has led to some suggesting that it  might be time to revamp or replace the census in its current iteration altogether. 

“Would we need the census if the NADRA database exists and is kept updated? If we have birth and death statistics, then we could essentially have a live running census,” proposes Taimur Jhagra, a former Provincial Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for Finance and Health.

Scepticism will inevitably persist, and those who believe they have been short-changed due to the demographic shifts will invariably voice their dissent.

Furthermore, rather than malevolence, most people that we approached whilst crafting this article merely questioned the rationale for the piece to begin with, when delimitations had already been executed. This delineates the second reason for the triviality of census data. No one genuinely seems to care about the findings beyond the delimitations. 

“I don’t think our governance system and our bureaucracy are equipped to utilise data in any significant manner. We seem to have a culture of collecting data for its own sake, and then neglecting it in the ways that it can add value,” Jhagra candidly asserts.

In a similar vein, “I have witnessed international organisations inquire numerous times for elucidations as to how all of Pakistan’s data is collated, the methodologies that underpin it, and how it can be employed. I have never had a solicitation from a Pakistani governmental institution exhibit similar keenness to comprehend the data that is available,” Muktadir supplements.

The reality is that if the government of Pakistan shirks its responsibility to conduct the census, augment its transparency, and elevate its importance and respect, then no one will do it on their behalf. Neither the World Bank nor the International Monetary Fund are in the business of conducting censuses on our behalf, nor do they serve to jog our memory of its importance. However, when we inevitably resort to them for assistance, they do require it. We can opt to disregard the importance of the census, but then we find ourselves inexorably bound to depend on the PBS’ surveys for all our reports, which hinge on this seemingly innocuous activity.

Daniyal Ahmad
Daniyal Ahmad
The author is a member of the staff, and covers the automobile, energy and advertising insdusties as a sector analyst. He can be reached at [email protected]


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