Pakistan has unfortunately become a country where there is no shortage of controversies at any given time. One such controversy involves the sixth population census which is to be held from March 15 this year. This census is taking place after a gap of almost 19 years. Yet, there is considerable opposition to the census. Some of it is justifiable, especially in the case of Balochistan.
After dillydallying for a year, the federal government was left with no choice – following directives from the Supreme Court – but to announce a definite date for the start of the census. Now, the mega exercise of the census will be conducted in March and the government has already allocated Rs14.5 billion for it – out of which Rs7 billion has been set aside for security purposes. Although this exercise is important for the planning needs of the country, it can give rise to new problems in the country, especially in Balochistan.
The census is an important exercise in every country. But in the case of Pakistan, it becomes even more important. The census is used to calculate the total population of the country; the official figures collected through this exercise are then used to make scores of policy decisions. The population data from the census would be used to distribute the shares of the provinces in the National Finance Commission (NFC) and the quota for federal government jobs as well as determine representation in parliament. The importance attached to the census makes it a sensitive subject. There are, however, certain reasons due to which the census can’t be fully transparent in the country.
Though there is opposition to the census from different quarters, the main source of hostility comes from Balochistan. In this province, the Baloch and the Pakhtun are the two largest ethnic groups. The Baloch and the Pakhtuns have been at loggerheads with each other over the resources and political control of the province. There has always been a large Baloch population in the province. However, it is feared that this might change due to certain inevitable irregularities in the forthcoming census.
The fears of an unfair census in Balochistan are not baseless. Afghan refugees – who are mostly Pakhtun – have been merged into Balochistan’s population, and have illegally acquired citizenship in Pakistan. This can evidenced from the fact that on at least four different occasions Nadra officials in Balochistan have been convicted for issuing CNICs to Afghan refugees.
The facts and figures generated from the house listing census of 2011 also support the claim that there has been an artificial assimilation of Afghan refugees in the population of Balochistan. As compared to 1998, the population of Pakistan increased by 46.9 percent in 2011. However, in Balochistan, the recorded increase was a massive 139 percent.
Even more surprising is the case of Killa Abdullah District – which borders Afghanistan and therefore has the highest concentration of Afghan refugees in the province. The population of the district increased from 370,269 in 1998 to 2,138,997 in 2011. This 447 percent increase in population cannot be natural as no other districts in Balochistan showed such a huge population growth rate. There can be only one plausible explanation for such a massive increase in the population of Killa Abdullah: the influx of Afghan refugees.
Not only is there an influx of Afghan refugees in Balochistan, there are also Baloch people who have left their homes due to the ongoing insurgency in the province. Although there are no official figures available, it is believed that hundreds of thousands of people from Dera Bugti, Kohlu, Awaran and Turbat have been internally displaced to various parts of Sindh and Punjab. This further reduces the population of the Baloch when compared to Pakhtuns in the backdrop of the census controversy.
All this has led to a catch-22 situation in the case of Balochistan. The census is important and can potentially increase the share of the province in the NFC and federal government job quota. But it can turn the Baloch into a minority in their own province and deprive them of political control. The best way to reach a conclusion on this issue is to carry out a cost-benefit analysis.
The benefits of the census have already been explained. The costs in the case of Balochistan would be catastrophic. If the Baloch become a minority due to this census, their sense of deprivation would increase by massive proportions. All the gains made in bringing people to the mainstream would disappear into thin air. This could also strengthen the Baloch insurgents who have lost considerable support over the last few years. In short, the costs of carrying out a census in Balochistan clearly outweigh the benefits.
In this context, it would be in the best interest of all to delay the census in Balochistan for three to four years. For now, the projected figures can be used based on the average population growth rate in the whole country. After three or four years, the census can be conducted in Balochistan when the Afghan refugees have been repatriated and the Baloch IDPs have returned home. Though a difficult decision to take, it seems to be an inevitable one.
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