By Arshad Abbasi

2017 is going to be the year of a census in Pakistan. The much-delayed and highly-required process of counting population in different statistical categories last happened in the country in 1998. In the passing years since then in the first place, there was no intention on the part of military and democratic governments to undertake this massive and essential exercise.

IN 2008 it was decided to hold the census but then put off indefinitely. The same delay occurred in 2010, 2012 and 2016 when citing security fears and lack of capacity governments stepped back from their commitment to hold the census.

However, when the incumbent government decided to embark on this task, there were hurdles and road blocks. The difficulties ranged from the deployment of personnel to use of various methods and modes to take this undertaking to the successful conclusion.

Having been through several rounds of debate and consultation among various stake holders it has been decided to hold a census in March this year. But here the deciding factor was the Suo moto notice of the Supreme Court which took the authorities to task for delaying already-delayed census. With few days left it is hoped that there is no further postponement given the present precarious law-in-order issue in the wake of a wave of militant activities.

The census in Pakistan can ensure that what are the needs and requirements of different segments of a population in different areas. Only numerical aspect of the census cannot do any good except projecting the population growth and its patterns.

There is a skewed distribution of wealth and resources thus causing unemployment, illiteracy, poverty and crime. These conditions prevail with more frequency and generality in South Punjab, Eastern Baluchistan and Northern Sindh.

These parts of Pakistan present a grim look at first sight owing to the absence of basic amenities of life and poor infrastructure. Having visited the Interior Sindh while traversing through the roads of South Punjab some two years ago the writer personally experienced the prevailing under-development of these parts of the country. The situation certainly is not quite different elsewhere in the neighbouring districts of Baluchistan.

Holding census at this point of time is going to be critical for these areas as it would give the rulers an opportunity to have a fresh look at the subhuman existence these people are coping with. Whether it moves their hearts or not, at least it will jolt few minds to their senses which then could potentially prove to be the first drop of rain.

Mere electoral considerations do not have to be a driving force behind the current census as it takes away focus from social development. Political forces must rise beyond their short-term gains at the expense of long-term opaque agendas. Even the exercise itself must go beyond mere counting population, families and homes. The Council of Common Interest ought to use and utilize new and novel techniques and methods to make it more meaningful and result-oriented.

Politicisation of census in Baluchistan and Sindh in the past has raised questions about its validity in terms of its results and outcomes. This time it should be taken care of that the transparency of this important practice is not called into question. There is already despair and frustration in the down-trodden parts of Pakistan. Census is their yet another hope to turn things around.

Minorities living in these areas face double discrimination viz. on the basis of religion and ethnicity. With a clear demographic mosaic of the country in their minds, the governing class can be forced to awake from slumber and take concrete actions to mitigate the situation.

Profiling of population on other indicators such as women, literacy, physical disabilities, language, race, religion and profession would help address the challenges of socio-economic development.

Demographic map of Pakistan is vital to understand its social moorings which in turn can deliver better citizenry imbued with patriotic zeal and passion.

The census in sparsely-populated land stretches of Baluchistan will be a tough call and so is the case in thickly-populated urban slums and centres. So the training of personnel and equipment commensurate with these difficulties will be the key to success. The assistance of the armed forces will come handy in these tricky parts of the country.

The marginalized segments of the population should be the primary beneficiaries of the present census. There is an encouraging development pointing to the positive census environment and that is the counting of the transgender population at par with the rest of the population.

However, the government must go ahead with its plan to carry out a census in the coming month. Further delay will send negative signals and credibility of the government will be at stake. The marginalized parts of the country will remain out of mainstream consequently stuck in the quagmire of poverty and its side effects.

The governance issues in the neglected towns and villages can be understood and addressed when the detailed map of their population is acquired in an organized and fair manner which is the real purpose of a census.