Held every ten years without a break since 1871, it is also the world’s most extensive and intensive exercise that is open, and peaceful. The data is researched and yields valuable information for planners and analysts. If any group feels agreed, it goes public.
But this is not so in Pakistan that was part of the Indian exercise till the Partition and now lives in perennial hostility and competition with India.
Its census operations are not regularly held. Its enumerators are not always welcome into Pakistani homes. They, particularly the women, work under threat and compulsion and despite heavy security, risk and at times lose their lives. This has been the past record.
Pakistan is holding its first census in nearly two decades amid tight security. The process is crucial for redrawing the political map of a country grappling with a weak economy and bitter divisions over resources.
Its previous national population census was held in 1998, after being delayed for seven years. Now, after 19 years, it is holding its sixth census. The authorities attribute the delays to a lack of funding and administrative inefficiencies, but the real reasons are far more complicated.
In about 10 years, nearly half of Pakistan's 200 million people are set to live in cities, compared to only a third today. A proper census would mean a redistribution of resources among the country's four provinces and the tribal regions governed by Islamabad.
Since Pakistan's independence, the smaller provinces - Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh - have complained of not getting their rightful share as the most populous province, Punjab, has dominated the economic and political spheres.
These complains have only exacerbated as Pakistan seeks to progress piggy-back on China that has offered the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
A new census could initiate a reorganization of electoral constituencies, the redistribution of wealth among the provinces, districts and cities, as well as greater autonomy for the politically marginalized ethnic communities. This all is bound to hit the vested interests, both civil and military, and challenge the status quo in the impoverished, feudal society.
More important, the 2017 census will shed light on the state of religious and ethnic minorities that have faced discrimination from the government and exploitation and violence from the upper classes since the beginning. India has done relatively better because it ended Zamindari and adopted a lasting democratic system.
The first phase of the census - a weeks-long process - kicked off on March 15 and will end on April 15, whereas the second will last from April 25 to May 25. The final results are expected by the end of July.
To protect 118,000 enumerators in 63 districts began the 70-day data-gathering campaign, tight security includes not just police but also 200,000 military personnel – more than the census staff in the light of poor law and order and rising incidents of terrorism.
The security arrangement is not just to protect the census teams, but also to ensure households can enter data without being intimidated.
While Bangladesh and India have held regular censuses every ten years for many decades, Pakistan's failure, or a lack of will to do the same, has pushed Pakistan into a deep administrative crisis.
Urbanization increasing at three percent annually - the fastest pace in South Asia -- is having an effect on Pakistan's volatile security situation.
Among those migrating to cities from rural areas are militants displaced by fighting and military offensives in the tribal areas. Cities like Peshawar - site of the horrific school massacre on December 16, 2014 - and Karachi, the largest city that has seen long periods of street violence, have had a rapid growth of Pakistani Taliban entrants.
A major concern about the 2017 census raised by Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is related to internal migration. It is also unclear how the government aims to tackle the issue of internally displaced tribal people (IDPs). It has been silent so far on whether the IDPs will be counted in their native areas or where they are living at present.
The ongoing military operations in the tribal areas have triggered massive migration from these regions to the cities. The authorities say that among them are also Afghan militants, whom some political parties want to exclude from the ongoing census.
With Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan constantly on the boil, the sentiment against the Afghan nationals is strong. Some political parties want Afghan migrants to be excluded from the ongoing census.
Millions of Afghans have poured into Pakistan since the 1980s due to a protracted conflict in their country. The second generation of these Afghan migrants has been born and brought up in Pakistan and possesses the country's national identity cards. Islamabad is in the process of repatriating these people to Afghanistan, but it is unclear how the 2017 census will determine their status.
The dispute over Afghan immigrants relates as much to the security issue as to demographic politics. Millions of Afghans have settled in Pakistani cities, such as Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi. That has changed the demography of these areas. While the Pashtun-speaking political parties and religious groups support Afghan immigrants, many mainstream groups want them deported to increase their political influence in these cities.
Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), the party of Mohajirs, the migrants from India, has demanded that all Afghan immigrants living in Pakistan be deported before the census. That has not happened.
The MQM parliamentarians said in their resolution that there are some 2.5 million Afghan immigrants living in the country who have become a `burden on Pakistan's economy.` They also said that the immigrants pose a risk to Pakistan's security.
It is doubtful if the exercise can be conducted fairly and efficiently. Experts say that the rapidly expanding population could exacerbate a range of problems in Pakistan. It has to deal with huge population increases, whereas its water resources and housing are already hard pressed. Experts say that the working age population will increase by 70 million in the next 20 years, which seems almost unmanageable for authorities.
It is hard to imagine how Pakistan can address its daunting development challenges from education to electricity generation, as well as solve its numerous political conflicts and militancy, if it continues to pay scant attention to the crucial issue of population growth.
Experts say the census counting is likely to be manipulated to suit the interests of Pakistan's powerful groups - both civilian and military – and will continue to impede the progress of the country.
Federal governments are wary of conducting a census because it means painful and unending squabbles with provincial governments over how to share the federal income with them from federal taxes based on their share of the population.
Provincial governments are also apprehensive about census results that create demand for hundreds of new rural and urban constituencies because this inevitably leads to the demand for more financial and administrative devolution of power, which provincial governments are loath to concede. The demographic shift from rural areas to urban areas also has implications for party political fortunes in view of different voter patterns and preferences. Given their dogged reluctance to hold local body elections for much the same reason – their fate has followed the same trajectory as that of the census, and the supreme court had to step in and order the provinces to stop making excuses and hold these after all – it is no wonder that a new census is not the most important item on provincial agendas.
A new census is likely to create ethnic strife in Balochistan if the Afghan refugees – who number anywhere from one to two million – and who have national ID cards are included in it. This will tilt the ethnic balance in favour of the Pakhtuns and give them significantly greater representation in the provincial parliament to the detriment of the ethnic Baloch.
In Sindh, the urban Mohajir community will be a net loser in terms of job quotas and electoral prospects because its population growth rate is lower than that of rural Sindhis. The migration of ethnic Pakhtuns from FATA and KP (with high birth rates) to Karachi will also adversely impact on Mohajir prospects.
The only province that is likely to be a clear winner from the new census on most counts is Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. KP can expect to see an increase in its share of the federal divisible pool of income, at the expense of the Punjab that the latter will not easily concede.
The new Census will also provide grist for disadvantaged and underdeveloped areas and sections of the polity. Where inequalities are glaring, as in gender or regions or on account of ethnicity, vis a vis social indicators of health, education and poverty, the demand for justice and positive discrimination will be loud and clear.
In short, Pakistan’s delayed and just-begun census will shake the already highly contentious status quo in many areas of nation building and political and economic evolution. That is why there isn’t much enthusiasm for it in the ruling establishment.