Pakistan’s Minister for Planning, Development, and Special Initiatives, Prof. Ahsan Iqbal, has expressed concern over the regressive nature of the existing National Finance Commission (NFC) formula, which gives 80% weightage to population. According to Prof. Iqbal, this formula inadvertently promotes population growth and has led to provinces attempting to manipulate census data. Despite efforts by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics to identify and address gaps, anomalies, and discrepancies in the census data through digital systems and expert analysis, conducting an authentic census has become an increasingly challenging task.
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The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics promptly identified issues during field operations and shared them in meetings with the Census Monitoring Committee. The Bureau engaged with all stakeholders to address these gaps, but despite five deadline extensions, the provinces are requesting more time, revealing their inefficiency in conducting the census and potential intentions to manipulate population counts. It is disheartening to witness political games being played with a process that significantly impacts the future of the Pakistani people and the country’s progress. This manipulation disproportionately affects the lives of the underprivileged while serving the interests of the political elite.
The Chief Census Commissioner and senior management of the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics are actively engaging with stakeholders and provincial governments to ensure a transparent and credible census. However, as Minister Ahsan Iqbal pointed out, serious fault lines exist in Sindh and Balochistan, hindering consensus due to urban-rural and Baloch-Pakhtun divides. Each segment aims to show a higher population count to gain more influence in matters such as employment, finance, and representation.
The Chief Census Commissioner has emphasized the importance of accurate and transparent data collection, stating that digital census technology enables the detection of irregularities caused by under-enumeration or over-enumeration due to biases or negligence. The Commissioner has urged Chief Secretaries to ensure that Assistant Commissioners and Deputy Commissioners are taking the necessary steps to hold a transparent and credible census.
The successful implementation of the first-ever digital census design in Pakistan is a significant achievement, with no technological failures and real-time data collection. The digital systems have effectively detected anomalies occurring during field operations conducted by the provinces. This seamless implementation marks a historic moment and a source of pride for the Pakistani people. Unfortunately, this achievement is overshadowed by the selfish politics played by politicians solely focused on personal gain.
Currently, the Chief Census Commissioner has directed the verification and rectification of census data, with the exercise expected to conclude by May 30, 2023. In the past, disagreements over census results have led to stakeholders rejecting the NFC award for resource distribution. To address this issue, Prof. Iqbal suggests delinking census data from resource distribution. He cited India’s successful experience of separating population growth from resource allocation for over two decades as a model for progress.
An official revealed that the population growth rate was approximately 2.8%, with Sindh experiencing over 3% growth and certain districts in Balochistan, such as Punjgur, recording an alarming rate of 22.3%. Islamabad capital territory also witnessed a growth rate of 2.71%. The Chief Census Commissioner warned that higher population growth and counts would lead to a decline in per capita income, potentially pushing Pakistan into lower-middle-income status. This situation could negatively impact foreign direct investment and worsen various social indicators.
Minister Ahsan Iqbal emphasized that this population growth alone could undermine Pakistan’s progress, and therefore, it is crucial to separate population from resource distribution and incentivize provinces to focus on demographic and social improvements.