Saturday, November 19, 2016

Business Recorder editorial Nov 19, 2016

Census travails The three member bench of the Supreme Court (SC) headed by Chief Justice (CJ) Anwar Zaheer Jamali hearing the suo motu case regarding the long delayed census has dismissed the government’s plan to conduct the exercise in March-April 2017 as “nothing but an eyewash”. The plan was presented in court by Attorney General (AG) Ashtar Ausaf Ali. The SC directed the government to submit a fresh report with a final and unconditional date. Visibly irked, the SC pointed out that it had taken suo motu notice of the census not being held as it should have been in 2008 in June this year, but despite the passage of five months, the government had done nothing in this regard. The SC took the government to task for the manner in which the country was being run. It said 70 percent of the cases before the SC pertained to implementation of its 2012-13 judgements. The country was being run on assumptions and hypotheses without knowing the exact ratio of women, men, children and the elderly. The AG in his reply told the court a summary had been moved to the Council of Common Interests proposing the March-April timeframe for the census. Further, that the original demand for 288,000 armed forces personnel to provide security to enumerators had been cut down to 48,000 as the armed forces had said they could not spare so many soldiers in the middle of their anti-terrorism campaign. Simultaneously, the AG explained, 167,000 teachers and other government servants were being trained for the task. But the CJ was not impressed. He described the AG’s submissions as ambiguous and vague, categorically rejecting any conditional report such as the present one, which laid down the conditionality that the census would be held subject to the availability of the armed forces personnel required. The court squarely laid the blame for the delayed census on successive governments, particularly the last two elected ones. They had failed to fulfil the constitutional requirement to hold the census after every 10 years, the last census dating from 1998. In addition, the court noted that the report said three months were required for the mobilisation of the armed forces personnel. The importance of the decennial census cannot be understated. In our setup, amongst other things, job quotas, the National Finance Award that distributes state revenues amongst the Centre and the provinces, parliamentary constituencies and therefore seats, all are affected by population. In the absence of a census for 18 years, clearly all these are operating on a false or erroneous basis. Besides, Pakistan has the highest urbanisation rate in South Asia. The dynamics of this process and their implications for planning and policy remain a mystery, or at best rely on guesswork. One suggestion that the NADRA record could be utilised for determining the population begs the question of that record’s comprehensiveness and reliability for this purpose. Obviously this unforgivable delay by successive governments to carry out the crucial population enumeration exercise, with its concomitant rich harvest of information on the demographic, economic and social dynamic, obviates any claims of good governance. This is no way to run a country. The SC’s frustration at the delay in implementation of its verdicts and the seeming unconscionable delay in the census can therefore be understood and sympathised with. The government, in tandem with the armed forces, would be well advised to consider conducting the census exercise in a phased manner. This could cut the task down to manageable piece-meal enumeration. This practice is followed in many countries, e.g. Canada, where a simultaneous enumeration faces formidable obstacles because of the distances involved and the dispersion of the population over a large territory. This manageable strategy could also reduce the size of the contingent required from the armed forces, rendering it possible for them to spare the necessary personnel despite the demands of the anti-terrorism struggle.

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