The first phase of the Census was scheduled between March 15 and April 15; the second between April 25 and May 25; and final results are expected by the end of July. In the second phase, 87 Districts will be covered.
The decision to initiate the Census was taken by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Government only after the Supreme Court took suo motu action on July 5, 2016, over the delay in carrying out the crucial process. This is the second time the census has been delayed since the country gained its independence in 1947. The first census in the country was conducted in 1951, the second in 1961, the third in 1972, instead of 1971 due to political turmoil, and the fourth in 1981. The fifth census, which was due in 1991, was conducted in March 1998 with the help of the Army.
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. According to the 1951 census, there were just 33.7 million people in the country, which rose to 42.8 million in 1961, 65 million in 1972 and 85 million in 1981. The last census of 1998 estimated the population at roughly over 130 million. Punjab was the most populous province, followed by Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
The census exercise is a mammoth undertaking with numerous security concerns. One of them is on account of the militant elements still remaining in the country and who are, for obvious reasons, violently opposed to security personnel. Second-generation Afghan migrants also oppose the census. Significantly, the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) has blocked 350,000 Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC) ahead of the first phase of the census. PBS chief Asif Bajwa claimed that most of the blocked CNICs belonged to Afghan nationals. Most of the Afghan migrants settled in Tribal areas and Balochistan fear being singled out for future deportation.
There are also fears among the large population of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Temporarily Displaced Persons (TDPs) of being left out, as well as Baloch nationalists who are targeted through an aggressive process of demographic re-engineering in Balochistan, and who fear that Afghans in the province may be enumerated as Pashtuns. In an atmosphere where the Baloch population and the Army lack mutual trust, the presence of soldiers in the company of the census takers may induce many in the Baloch-dominated districts to stay away from the population count, either in boycotts or because of security apprehensions. This is likely to result in a systematic exclusion of the Baloch - especially in the insurgency-hit southern Districts.
The process deploys more than 300,000 people and involves 55 million census forms - as well as a second, separate form distributed by the military. The PBS deploys some 119,000 people, including 84,000 enumerators: teachers and local officials who go door-to-door to count homes and then individuals. Chief Census Commissioner Asif Bajwa disclosed that the national exercise was being carried out at a total cost of PKR 18.5 billion. Of this, PKR six billion would be spent on civil and armed personnel and the remaining PKR 6.5 billion on hiring vehicles.
Unlike previous years, when the Army refused to provide security to census teams, on January 27, 2017, the Army approved the deployment of 200,000 troops for duties during the Sixth Population and Housing census. A statement issued by the ISPR declared, `Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa has approved the plan to support conduct of 6th Population and Housing Census. Up to 200,000 troops will be employed.` The decision to deploy the troops for the census paved the way for the holding of the long-delayed exercise. Unavailability of troops because of their pre-occupation with security tasks had been cited as the biggest obstacle to the conduct of the census in the past. The ISPR statement clarified that the military's engagement with census duties did not mean that counterterrorism operations would come to a halt and `other security responsibilities` would continue.
The Chief Census Commissioner Asif Bajwa stated the Army would act as 'observers' to ensure enumerators did not inflate local counting. However, Pakistan had faced criticism from United Nations' agencies for involving the armed forces in the Census exercise on the grounds that this went against international standards and best practices.
Despite being under direct Army supervision, the regular terrorist attacks on census teams rips apart the claim of providing fool proof security. Circumstances during the first phase of the Census clearly demonstrate that two Army personnel and as many Policemen with each census team are far from sufficient to ensure security and the integrity of the exercise.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management