Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial May 24, 2018

Census audit abandoned

The government has in principle abandoned the audit of five percent of the Census 2017 blocks to check the results. It may be recalled that when the provisional results of the census were announced last year, some political parties, with the MQM and PPP leading the pack, objected to the results as inaccurate. They were then mollified by the announcement in December 2017 that a third-party audit of five percent of the census blocks would be conducted. But the Statistics Division convinced Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi that the audit was no longer viable as a year had passed since the provisional results were announced and in a large and diverse country like Pakistan, a lot of migration takes place from one region to another owing to changing cropping requirements, weather conditions and change in livelihoods between urban and rural areas. The international standard for post-enumeration surveys and checks is two months, preferably 30 days. Besides, the process and terms of reference of the audit could not be agreed, nor could the outcomes be expected before the upcoming elections in two months. For all these reasons, the audit had become infructuous. The prime minister was convinced by these arguments, though not without expressing regret at the delays, but argued he could not make the decision unilaterally and suggested the issue be placed before the Council of Common Interests (CCI). The postponed meeting of the CCI is expected some time this week.
The provisional census results reveal that the population has grown by 57 percent since the last 1998 census, i.e. 2.4 percent per annum from 132.35 million in 1998 to 207.77 million in 2017. The final results of the census did not change much from the provisional results, a mere 60,000 or less. However, two key outcomes of the final results stand out and could conceivably play a critical role in future political discourse. One, the Sindhi-speaking population of Sindh’s urban areas increased substantially, significantly higher than other ethnic groups and all other non-Sindhi speaking groups put together. Two, the gap between the Pashtun and Baloch population of Balochistan dropped to less than one percent, reflecting a major demographic shift that could lead to contention in the political sphere in future. The highest growth in population was in the Islamabad Capital Territory (4.91 percent), reflecting the magnetic attraction of the federal capital in the context of job opportunities. Amongst the provinces, Balochistan had the highest growth at 3.37 percent, followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at 2.89 percent, Sindh 2.41 percent and Punjab 2.13 percent. Naturally the constituency delimitations will reflect these trends.

What is surprising about this whole episode  is the deafening silence from the parties and individual politicians who were the census’ most virulent critics initially. This indifference suggests that these parties and individuals were not really interested in the accuracy of the census enumeration and the delimitation of constituencies to follow except to ensure it did not negatively affect their prospects in the coming polls. It appears now that they are satisfied that no such impact is likely, hence the pregnant silence. Whether the suggestion to abandon the audit is wise remains an open question since the reservations were considerable and the provisional results could arguably be challenged in a court of law. What the implications of such a legal challenge for the election schedule might be is in the realm of conjecture at this point. It should not be forgotten that the issue of population and its distribution throughout the country directly affects resource allocation, in which population remains the main criterion. At this point, the best outcome may well be the silence of the critics translating into an acceptance of the unaudited results for the purposes of constituency delimitations and the holding of the elections according to schedule as any disruption at this point could derail the polls, something no sensible person would wish at this late hour.

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