Why is Sindh’s population data being manipulated in the census?

Published: March 22, 2017
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An official from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics collects information from a resident during a census as security personnel guard them in Peshawar on March 15, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

The census teams told our guards to get the forms filled in two days, after which they will come to collect them.

The on-going census exercise in Karachi seems to be all over the place, raising questions on the validity and reliability of the entire exercise. The above-mentioned scenario was reported from District East in Karachi, while many others were reported from different parts of Karachi.

The significance of census can be gauged from the fact that as per the Constitution, it provides basis for political representation in the national and provincial assemblies, delimitation of constituencies for national and provincial assemblies and distribution of funds to federating units by the National Finance Commission, and determines the quota for recruitment to all the civil posts in the federal government. The last census exercise was undertaken in the country in 1998. After a good 19 years, we seem to have made little progress in terms of enhancing our efficiency and transparency.

The census of 1998, however flawed it was, served as the basis on which representation through seats was allocated in the National Assembly. In a recent seminar, social scientist Haris Gazdar said the ratio of population in Sindh in relation to the rest of the country did not change in the 1981 and 1998 censuses and remained almost same at 22.58% and 22.9% respectively. According to Gazdar, this cannot be possible considering that migration, fertility and other factors were on the rise.

Should such a situation arise again and the population ratios are tampered with, it would obviously be difficult for the residents of Sindh, especially Karachi, to fathom that the burgeoning province constitutes barely a fifth of the country’s population.

Different parties hold different suspicions regarding the census exercise – Sindh is suspicious of the federal government while Karachi and other urban areas are sceptical of the provincial government. Talking about the suspicions, former Karachi Metropolitan Corporation administrator Fahim Zaman pointed out in an analysis:

“One of the reasons for the suspicions is that all the members of the governing council and the functional members of Pakistan Bureau of Statistics responsible for the present exercise are drawn from one province — Punjab.”

In the same analysis, he adds:

“While both parties [PPP and MQM] also appear convinced that Sindh may not get a genuine headcount they also appear to be extremely suspicious of each other due to the urban-rural divide in the province.”

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is also concerned about the fact that 30% of Sindh’s population do not hold computerised national identity cards (CNICs), which might give an excuse to the Punjab-based census authorities to not list these people.

Meanwhile, Karachi has its fair share of problems pertaining to the census exercise. According to Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) MNA Ali Raza Abidi, MQM has a trust deficit with both the federal and provincial governments. However, he was more concerned with the threat posed to Karachi’s representation by the provincial government. He stated that Karachi’s population is deliberately shown as lesser than the actual in order to prevent Karachi-based leadership from forming the government in the provincial assembly. When Karachi’s population and houses are misrepresented, it allows delimitation of constituencies along discriminatory lines. He pointed out that an MPA from interior Sindh gets elected to represent 250,000 people while the lawmaker from Karachi gets elected by being voted by 500,000 people. This is because of the unfair delimitation of constituencies, which is legitimised by manipulated census data. In turn, this allows PPP to form a government as it gets a larger number of MPAs with the help of more constituencies despite representing a lesser number of people in reality, said Abidi.

Talking about the discrepancies in the on-going census exercise, Abidi talked about an area that falls in his constituency known as Mehmoodabad Number Two. According to him, this area was developed after 2008 and has around 6,000 houses. Since the census authorities are using the maps of 2007 to divide the city into blocks, the area was divided into three blocks despite the fact that one block is supposed to comprise 250-400 houses as per the census regulations. After Abidi wrote to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics head Asif Bajwa, three more blocks were made in the area.

Abidi claimed that this will result in listing a lesser number of houses and an eventual under-representation of the population of the area. According to him, other areas of Karachi such as Surjani Town, Ittehad Town, Kati Pahari, Mauripur, Bengali Para and Gadap Town were also developed after 2008 but old maps are being used. He added that many of these areas have had an influx of migrants because of floods in Sindh and the three military operations in the northern parts of the country, which has resulted in an increase in the population of the city.

According to a report, MQM-Pakistan head Dr Farooq Sattar also approached the court on March 6th, a few days before the census exercise kicked off. According to his petition, the blocks in urban areas of Sindh were counted as 47.65% during the last census but for the upcoming census, the blocks have been reduced to 45%. He said they have raised the point in the petition that Sindh’s urban population must have increased during the past 18 years due to urbanisation, yet the government has decreased the number of blocks so as to manipulate the census. As the blocks in Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur have been reduced, houses and head count in those cities would also be counted less than their actual numbers, he maintained. The MQM leader feared that contrary to facts, the government is going to show increased rural and decreased urban populace in the census. He accused the government of manipulating the census to compile flawed voter lists, doctored in the ruling party’s favour.

The counted half of the glass

During a meeting on January 2nd, officials had informed Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah that the first phase of the census will cover lower Sindh, including the Karachi, Hyderabad and Mirpurkhas divisions, after which the second phase will be carried out in Sukkur, Larkana and Benazirabad divisions.

“In each phase, three days have been fixed for house listing and 10 days for census by acquiring information about family members in a house,” provincial census commissioner Aleem Memon had said. “One day has been fixed for homeless people.”

Despite all these claims and announcements, half of Karachi’s houses were left out, admitted census authorities at the end of the three-day house count.

Meanwhile, there were reports that entire apartment complexes were being listed as one house in Karachi. The CM took strong exception to this, reminding the federal authorities of their promise to ensure transparency and accuracy while Dr Sattar, whose party holds major representation in Karachi, also wrote to the census commissioner against this practice. He later also demanded that the head count be extended by two days to list all the houses in the city.

The use of pencil was also reported, which is a blatant violation of the census rules. While some census teams claim that they fill the forms with pencil or in other cases use plain paper instead of the actual forms to save time, residents are naturally wary of such violations of the rules that were announced. If my form is not filled in front of me in pen, it is only natural of me to think that my details might be tampered with to suit any ulterior motives.

Meanwhile, reports from residents of different areas ranged from the Baloch population of Karachi being forced to write Sindhi in the mother language section, to census teams in different parts of Sindh taking note of details of family members on plain paper instead of filling the form in front of the residents. Others claimed that the census teams left the forms with the guards of their apartments, asking them to distribute the forms among residents which will be collected after two days by the census teams. This, again, seems like a ‘time saving’ measure. What such teams neglected though is the fact that not all residents will understand the technicalities of the form and might need their help. This sloppy attitude on part of the census teams endangers the accuracy of the data that will be collected.

Not so surprisingly, reporters were prevented by army personnel in some areas for reasons best known to them from asking any questions while census teams fill the forms.

Economist Dr Kaiser Bengali had suggested that Sindh must independently carry out the census by selecting two to three random blocks in any of the 28 districts to challenge the ‘tampered’ data of the census carried out by the federal government. He had demanded that ward-wise census data be issued in order to minimise the fear of tampering instead of holding accumulated figures for months before announcing it centrally.

The PPP challenged the procedure of the census exercise in the Sindh High Court on Monday. Petitioner Senator Farhatullah Babar complained that many important issues pertaining to the census have been kept secret, stressing that access to information is our right. Referring to the complaints being received from ‘all classes and all provinces’, he demanded that the exercise be made transparent. He added that the census information should be uploaded on a website so that the reservations of the citizens can be addressed. In his petition, Dr Sattar had also expressed reservations on the procedure of the census.

Making the ward-wise data accessible to public and providing citizens a copy of the data being collected by Islamabad are suggestions that could help ensure the accuracy of the census exercise, which in turn will ensure that grievances of representatives do not blow out of proportion.

Meanwhile, the local government, particularly of urban areas, should also be equipped to challenge what could be tampered data as the provincial government is often accused of neglecting the urban areas of Sindh.

The point of the entire exercise is to ensure that accurate data is collected so that accurate representation can in turn be ensured. Everything contrary to that, however, seems to be getting ensured. If census results will not reflect the reality of the population ratios, it will result in aggravating the already existing grievances. Sindh feels that the capital discriminates against the province, be it the issue of water share or resources from the federal pool. In turn, representatives of urban Sindh feel their population data is manipulated with deliberately to deprive them of their due representation.

The state needs to realise its responsibility in containing and addressing such grievances. Lest we forget, Pakistan was the result of such accumulated grievances of the Muslim population that felt discriminated against.

Minerwa Tahir

Minerwa Tahir

The author has completed her Masters in Mass Communication and is currently incharge of the Karachi desk at a local leading daily. Her interests include Marxism, feminism and social issues. She tweets @minerwatahir (twitter.com/minerwatahir?lang=en)

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