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Much-delayed Pakistani census finally starts

Asif Hassan, AFP | A Pakistan Bureau of Statistics official marks a Karachi residence after collecting data March 15, 2017.

After nearly 20 years, three aborted attempts and plenty of wrangling between politicians, feudal chiefs and government officials, Pakistan kicked off a national census Wednesday under tight security.

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Dressed in green vests proclaiming “Pakistan Census 2017”, census teams fanned out across 63 districts in the first phase of the count, accompanied by army and police officials.

The heavy security presence underscored just one of many challenges confronting the massive data-gathering exercise in the world’s sixth-most populous nation.

The last census conducted in 1998 put the population at 134 million, a figure that’s still used in some official circles although the World Bank estimated there were around 190 million Pakistanis in 2015.

The actual figure could be higher, depending on who’s included – a contentious issue in a country that has been home to a shifting number of Afghan refugees fleeing decades of war, many of whom have falsified documents.

Military secures and participates in census

Conflict and crackdowns have also put more than a million Pakistanis on the move, with the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimating that as of July 2015, more than 1.8 million people were displaced by insurgency, counterinsurgency and violence.

And while the heavy military presence is necessary in a violence-wracked country, the fact that Pakistan’s powerful army is simultaneously conducting a parallel count using a second questionnaire has raised alarm bells in some circles.

"The administration of any kind of other questionnaire during the census is [infringing] on the principle of confidentiality," Hassan Mohtashami, representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) told the AFP.

The army is dispatching up to 200,000 troops for the exercise, including 44,000 participating in the parallel count. Army officials have also been granted judicial powers to administer on-the-spot verdicts to those refusing to cooperate in the census.

All eyes on electoral districts

While the military involvement in the census has sparked little debate in Pakistan, the likely political ramifications of the census results have dominated headlines.

The count could redraw the political map as the country gears up for a national election next year – a prospect that has raised fears over power bases and federal funding.

The decision to include registered and unregistered Afghan refugees has outraged politicians in the sparsely populated western Pakistani province of Balochistan, where the ethnic Baloch population fears it would turn them into a minority in their native region.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s most populated and powerful Punjab province could lose some of its political clout since its population is not rising as fast as other provinces.

Meanwhile in the northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and tribal areas near the Afghan border, internal displacements due to urbanisation as well as the army counterinsurgency operations have sparked concerns of a demographic imbalance.

Despite the challenges confronting census officials, morale was high Wednesday as enumerators – many of them teachers hired by the national census bureau – went from door-to-door gathering data.

"It's a very hectic process, but we are ready for it," Nadeem Ehsan, a teacher in the northwestern city of Peshawar, told AFP. "We had some reservations about security initially but we were assured about it by the government," he added, describing the process as a "noble cause".

The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) has hired 300,000 people to fill 55 million forms across the country. The first census phase extends from March 15 to April 15 while a second runs from April 25 to May 25. Final results are expected by the end of July.

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