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 A Pakistani walks past banners announcing the 2017 census in Islamabad March 13. Pakistan is conducting its first census since 1998. [Aamir Qureshi/AFP]
A Pakistani walks past banners announcing the 2017 census in Islamabad March 13. Pakistan is conducting its first census since 1998. [Aamir Qureshi/AFP]

The first census in 19 years will be the basis for political and funding adjustments and comes one year before parliamentary elections.

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ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan this week will embark on the enormous task of conducting its first census in almost two decades, after years of political bickering about power bases and federal funding.

Fast-growing Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, with an estimated 200 million people, but has not held a census since 1998, despite a constitutional requirement for decennial counts.

The 1998 census found a population of more than 132 million.

The process starts Wednesday (March 15) and will deploy a team of more than 300,000 civilians and troops and involve 55 million forms.

It will be the basis for revising political boundaries, parliamentary seat allocations and federal funding, while giving a clearer picture of religious minority numbers in the Muslim-majority country as well as counting the transsexual population for the first time.

The census will be conducted in two phases: March 15 to April 15 and April 25 to May 25. Results are expected by the end of July.

Power and politics

The census is a highly charged issue, coming one year before national parliamentary elections.

"Pakistan does not have a homogenous population," Muddassir Rizvi, head of programmes at the Free and Fair Elections Network, told AFP. "We are multiple ethnicities; more than 80 different languages are spoken. The count ... determines the political power of various ethnicities."

Mighty Punjab Province could see its political grip weaken as a result of its population rising more slowly than those of other provinces.

"It is not a well-received exercise by political actors," said Rizvi. "It's only on the orders ... of the the Supreme Court that this exercise is being undertaken."

Only nine languages are given as options for citizens' mother tongue, to the dismay of many communities.

The census will provide an insight into the size of religious minorities, especially Christians and Hindus. Estimates are disputed and far apart, ranging from 2 to 10 million for the former and 2.5 to 4.5 million for the latter.

Citizens may declare themselves Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Ahmadi -- a branch of Islam considered heretic by the state -- or "other".

Citizens will have three choices for their gender: male, female and transsexual.

Another question asks households how many toilets they have -- a particularly salient question in Pakistan, where the UN estimates up to 40% of people lack access to indoor plumbing, with serious consequences for health, especially children's.

Hasty preparations

The lack of political will until this year has resulted in hasty preparations.

The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) has been ready to go for 10 years, but the government granted the green light less than three months ago, giving the PBS little time to train staff and to reassure parties and communities.

"There was very limited time ... to ensure everyone feels the importance of being counted," Hassan Mohtashami, country director for the UN Population Fund, told AFP.

Many within Pakistan are unhappy that the approximately two million Afghan refugees, who often possess falsified documents, could be counted as Pashtun Pakistanis, skewing the totals.

In Balochistan, the country's least populous province, a nationalist party has rejected the census, calling it tantamount to "suicide" because an influx of Pashtuns -- both from other parts of Pakistan as well as from Afghanistan -- is likely to make the ethnic Baloch a minority in their own region.

Army escorts

The PBS will deploy 119,000 people, including 84,000 enumerators: teachers and local officials who will go door to door to count households and then individuals.

Pakistan's army announced it would dispatch up to 200,000 troops for the exercise, including 44,000 participating directly in the census-taking and making a parallel count.

The army will act as "observers" to prevent any inflated counting, said PBS chief statistician Asif Bajwa.

"Being a local person, the enumerator is susceptible to pressures, because everybody knows that a larger population translates into more jobs, more seats and more money for the province," he told AFP, adding that each census-taker will have a military "shadow".

That arrangement has created some disquiet for the UN, which is concerned about the army's role as parallel data collectors.

"The administration of any kind of other questionnaire during the census is [infringing] on the principle of confidentiality," said Mohtashami.

In Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), alone, "about 3,500 police officers and FC [Frontier Constabulary] members and more than 4,500 army soldiers" will guard census teams, Peshawar Capital City Police Officer Mohammad Tahir told Pakistan Forward.

Preparations in KP

KP residents like Peshawar trader Aziz Ahmad eagerly await the results.

Census statistics "will be helpful in distributing resources and facilities", Ahmad told Pakistan Forward, adding that the census was overdue.

Meanwhile, Nazir Mohammad, a local nazim from suburban Peshawar, urged the public "not to worry when they see security teams".

"People must provide the correct information and should keep the computerised national identity card of the head of family," he said, adding that elected KP officials will work as volunteers alongside census enumerators because the officials know their own areas well.

[Javed Khan from Peshawar contributed to this report.]

 

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