Without reliable data, Pakistan’s planning process will be driven by ignorance.
Murtaza Haider  · Yesterday · 07:30 pm
17 years and no census: Pakistan is running on guesswork

Photo Credit: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
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Every sensible parent knows that the timely and frequent measurements of their newborn’s height and weight is essential for the child’s mental and physical development. A national census is no different.

Conducted at regular intervals, a census allows governments, businesses, and others to take stock of the socio-economic health of the nation.

Without census data, socio-economic planning is not much better than guesswork.

Rumours are rife that Pakistan’s federal government is either hesitant or even reluctant to hold the decennial census, which has been overdue since 2008. The last census in Pakistan was conducted in 1998, only after a delay of seven years.

The census should receive the same priority as the timely measurements of our newborns. Or else, like malnourished children, we will continue to raise a socio-economically malnourished nation.

Demographers, economists, and social scientists unanimously favour census data because no amount of customised surveys or other databases, including Nadra, Pakistan’s national database programme under which citizens are issued an identity card, can be a substitute for the census.

It appears that the Pakistani government has not formally cancelled the census. However, the funds needed to complete the task by March 2016 have not yet been released. An estimated 14.5 billion Pakistani rupees have been requested to hold the census. The Pakistan army will receive more than half of the requested amount (7.4 billion Pakistani rupees) to provide security for the operation.

Underestimating the costs

Excluding transfers to the Pakistan army, an estimated 40 Pakistani rupees have been budgeted to enumerate each individual. This estimate is on the low side. In addition, large sums are needed to turn the census data into research deliverables and insights and in research-ready formats for researchers in academia and public sectors.

Given the changes in the Statistics Act (Act number XIV), which was promulgated in 2011, the Federal government is not bound to hold the Census at regular intervals. Part VI of the Act states:

“The Federal Government may, from time to time, by notification in the official Gazette, declare that a census of population and housing conditions of Pakistan shall be taken by the Bureau during such period as may be specified therein.”

Taking the census is now more of a function of convenience than obligation. This would allow the governments to take the census as per their short-term political needs. Such preservation of political self-interest is likely to harm Pakistan’s national interest.

Is there a substitute?

Some have erroneously argued that small surveys and other national databases could substitute for the census. They are gravely mistaken. Neither in Pakistan, nor in an advanced economy, such as Canada, can there be a substitute for the census.

In 2011, the Conservative government of the Canadian Prime MinisterStephen Harper replaced the long-form census with a National Household Survey. The politically motivated decision by the Conservative government attracted rebuke from provincial and local governments, as well as academic and business researchers who knew that there could be no substitute for the Census.

The decision to scrap the long-form census prompted the resignation of Canada’s chief statistician, Dr Munir Sheikh, who observed that a voluntary survey could not substitute the census.

What about Nadra?

Some well-meaning individuals have advised the Pakistan government that Nadra’s database could be a substitute for census data. This advice, despite being well-intentioned, is based on ignorance of statistical methods, especially random sampling.

Nadra’s database is over-represented by those who need a national identity card or a passport. It systematically misses millions of destitute Pakistanis who see no value in the national identity card or a passport.

The primary data collection philosophy between the census and Nadra differs. Individuals approach Nadra to be included in the database, which results in the response bias. The government, on the other hand, approaches all individuals to include them in the census, thus limiting the response bias.

Another technical aspect of the census is that it provides the sampling frame for all other surveys conducted by the government and other agencies. In the absence of a recent census, the sampling frames are drawn from the 1998 census. Furthermore, the delineation of political and administrative boundaries will have to be based on the dated 1998 census.

Yet another key limitation with Nadra’s data is its proprietary nature. Nadra does not share its data with municipal or provincial governments. Academics and other researchers have no way of accessing Nadra’s data.

The census, on the other hand, has a history of data sharing agreements with other tiers of governments, researchers, and others interested in public policy.

Lastly, Nadra does not collect the same details about households that are collected in the census. Also, the systematic biases in coverage render Nadra’s data of little use for socio-economic planning.

The Indian experience

India conducted its national census in 2011. It recorded 1.2 billion individuals. The recently released breakdown of the census data revealed that the population of Hindus in India declined by 0.7%. Hindus now constitute 79.8% of the population. At the same time, the share of Muslim population increased by 0.8%, reaching 14.2% of the total. This puts the Muslim population in India at around 170 million.

There was no reason for these numbers to rile up right-wing Hindu fundamentalists like they were. They are merely using these numbers to project the false image of a rapidly Islamising India, so as to strengthen the Hindu vote in the upcoming State elections.

If one consults the census, one would realise that since 1991, the Indian Muslims inter-census growth rate has been declining at a rate much faster than that of the Hindus. It is quite likely that the population growth rates of Hindus and Muslims will converge soon.

Amir Ullah Khan, who works with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was quoted in the Financial Times, believes that the convergence of growth rates has already taken place in the developed and literate States of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka.

If it were not for the census, Hindu fundamentalists would continue spreading false alarms about the Islamisation of India.

Why it’s vital

For sound socio-economic planning, data liberation must be a central theme for the next Census in Pakistan.

It is the primary responsibility of the government to report on the state of the nation. Without census data, the government cannot advise the citizens on the state of the economy and society.

The government might plan for the future. However, in the absence of a census, ignorance, and not knowledge, will drive that exercise.

This article was originally published on Dawn.com