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Census Pitfalls and Challenges.

Byline: Dr. Mehtab S. Karim

One of the wheels of democracy which helps a country's smooth functioning is knowing the number of people in different parts of the country, so that they could choose their representatives on the basis of one man-one vote. Besides, a census also provides relevant data at national, provincial and local levels for proper planning. Accordingly, almost all countries of the world conduct a census every 10 years and some even conduct it every 5 years (e.g. Iran and even the Maldives did so).

During the past 15 years, a census has been conducted in almost all UN member countries, however, only a handful among major countries have not done so. These include Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The 1973 Constitution of Pakistan postulates conducting a census every ten years, which could become the basis of demarcating constituencies of the National and Provincial Assemblies, help in allocation of national resources to provinces through National Finance Commission (NFC) and determine job quota to provinces, on the basis of the results of the most recent census.

The United Nations defines census as, "the total process of collecting, compiling and pub-lishing demographic, economic and social data pertaining, at a specified time of all persons in a country." In practice, this does not mean that every person actually is seen and interviewed but only one adult in a household provides information about all other residents (relatives and non-relatives) to questions asked by the census enumerator.

Population Growth in Pakistan 1951-1998

Since the first census conducted in 1951 and the last in 1998, Pakistan's population grew four-fold. During 1951-81 period the annual growth rate was 3.1 percent which declined to 2.6 percent during 1981-98. Although a census is supposed to count everybody, but many people are missed which could also happen in a developing country, as well as in more developed countries.

For example, in Pakistan after the 1961 cenus when a post-enumeration survey was conducted, about 6 percent under-count in the population was discovered. Therefore, the population was later adjusted upwards. In 1981 a post-enumeration survey was conducted but results were not released. After the 1998 census a post-enumeration survey was not undertaken, therefore the extent of under-reporting could not be determined.

However, it is largely believed that the 1981 census was the most accurate census conducted in Pakistan. After the 1991 census was postponed, it was decided to conduct the census six years later. Apparently, the Federal Government was not sure that the Pakistan Census Organization (which was a part of the Ministry of Finance and Planning and Development) could conduct a fair census on its own. Therefore, for the first time, assistance of armed forces was sought. It was assumed that in the presence of military personnel who would accompany the civilian enumerator, the household member will not exaggerate the number, as was experienced in some areas during the housing census conducted in 1991.

However, since a post-enumeration survey was not conducted, therefore results could not be validated, particularly the possible undercount in the census. Subsequently, in 2000 a steering committee of experts was constituted by the Government of Pakistan with support from the United Nations Population Fund. It was found that the 1998 census suffered from various inconsistencies, one of which was a possible undercount or under reporting.

This author, who served as a member of the steering committee, by applying annual growth rates derived from Pakistan Demographic surveys, conducted during 1982-97, estimated that Pakistan's population in 1998 should have been about 142 million. However, after accounting for about 3 million emigration from Pakistan to the Gulf countries, Europe and North America, during 1981-98 inter-censal period, it was suggested that about 5 percent population missed in the 1998 census. Further analysis of 1998 census indicated that the undercount was mostly in Sindh province, which could be to the tune of about 6 million people.

Of these, about 2 million, who although were counted living in Karachi, but were not included in the census report as they were considered alien or illegal immigrants from Afghanistan and Bangladesh. In a subsequent report published in 2008 by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics it was pointed out that, in the 1998 census the population of urban areas and migration to large cities were under-estimated, data on education was inadequate and there were issues pertaining to data collected on economic activity.

Since census is a gigantic undertaking, an in countries where the majority of people are not educated, census results suffer from coverage and under-reporting of population. Besides, since the 1973 constitution of Pakistan (as of many other countries) census results determine allocation of seats in the National Assembly and 85 percent weightage is given to census results for the purpose of resource allocation though the National Finance Commission, the possibility of census results being doctored always exists.

Therefore, those who would want a status quo are usually in favour of postponing the census. Perhaps the results of 1998 census could have been affected because, as shown in the figures, the share of Sindh had increased in each subsequent census during 1951 and 1981, when it increased from about 18 percent in 1951 to 23 percent in 1981.

Whereas, there was over 3 percentage point increase in the share of Sindh between 1961-81 (in 20 years), during 1981-98 (in 19 years), Sindh gained only 0.4 percentage points . It is a well recognized fact that Sindh has been on the receiving end of migrants from other three provinces which has resulted in the increasing share of Sindh's population, which was evident till 1981. However, a negligible increase in Sindh's population can be only explained if there was only negligible migration to Sindh during 1981-98 or the rate of natural increase (difference between birth and death rates) had suddenly declined there.

Role of Inter-Provincial Migration

Further investigation reveals that migration to Sindh had continued between 1981 and 1998 as shown in Table 2.

Thus, due to migration Sindh had a gain of over 1.1 million people, of which over 0.6 million originated in Punjab and another over 0.4 million originated in former NWFP (renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Another interesting finding of the 1998 census was that Karachi was the main point of destination of most migrants to Sindh. For example, the 1998 census reported that while Karachi then contained about 8% of Pakistan's population, of all those people who migrated internally within Pakistan during 10 years prior to the census 22 percent chose to settle in Karachi.

In comparison, the four largest districts of Punjab - Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi and Multan - which combined together contained about 21% of the country's population, received about the same number of internal migrants as did Karachi. Furthermore, demographic surveys conducted by Pakistan's Federal Bureau of Statistics showed that rates of natural Increase (difference between birth and death rates) during 1980s and 90s in Sindh and other provinces were about the same. There are thus indications that since Sindh's population was under-enumerated in the 1998 census, therefore its share in the country's population has remained at the same level as in 1981.

This is indicated in Table 3, where it has remained unexplained that why the average number of persons per household in Sindh declined substantially from 7 in 1981 to 5.8 in 1998, while a subsequent household sample survey conducted in 2000 by the Federal Bureau of Statistics showed an average 7.5 persons per household in Sindh. The discrepancy is also noted in Balochistan.

Challenges in the 2017 census

The 2017 census currently underway has already become disputed and various political parties, particularly in smaller provinces, have raised many questions. The results will be subject to challenges by a vibrant media. Besides, due to the concerns shown by many groups, results may be challenged in courts as well. Even prior to the start of the census, Chief Minister of Sindh had requested the Federal Finance Minister to make public the number of people who have been counted at sub-divisional level, fearing that the numbers may be changed in Islamabad.

After not getting a positive response from the Finance Minster, Pakistan People's Party has already filed a petition in Sindh High Court, against the "lack of transparency" praying to carry out the entire exercise in a transparent manner and to provide complete access of data to the provinces, before releasing the results. The petition points out that under Article 19-A of the Constitution for the basic right of access to information, assistant commissioners should maintain the record of data in their offices which should be accessible to the public.

Province/Area###Number migrated Number migrated Net gain to

###to Sindh from###from Sindh to###Sindh


Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly NWFP)###430,848###12,393###418,455










Information being collected in the 2017 census

The 2017 census is collecting information about each household member such as Name, Relationship to the head, Sex, Age, Marital Status, Religion, Mother tongue, Nationality, Literacy status, School attendance, Level of education completed, whether during the past 12 months the person is working, looking for a job, doing house work or any other work.

Besides information about the living quarters is also being collected such as number of rooms - tenure status, period since constructed, construction material used in outer walls and roofs, source of drinking water, source of lighting - fuel used for cooking, availability of kitchen, bathroom and type of latrine, availability of TV, Radio, Newspaper, Telephone. Mobile Phone and Computer and if any household member is living abroad and their number.

One issue which has remained a bone of contention is obtaining the number of Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC) of the household head, which is being verified by the representative of the armed forces by sending a SMS to NADRA. The expert committee constituted by the Governing Council of Pakistan Bureau of Statistics had taken the view that since obtaining CNIC is not a part of the census it will cause unnecessary delay and verification from NADRA will be against the spirit of confidentiality of the census. Besides, some political parties have raised the issue that since in rural areas many people do not have CINC they may be left out of the census exercise. However, CNIC number is being collected.

Previous census also collected information through a long term Form from every 10th household which collected information pertaining to migration such as district of birth, duration of continuous residence in the present district, district or country of previous residence and the reason of migration and nature and type of any disability. Those 5 years and older, their occupation and from married females 15-49 years old; number of children ever born, number of children still living, number of children born during last 12 months and of these how many are alive. This is crucial information which will help in understanding important demographic, economic and health indicators for planning purposes.

A mission from the United Nations in its report submitted to Pakistan Bureau of Statistics in October 2016, made the following recommendations for smooth conduct of the census, which were not adopted. Theses included:

1. The census questionnaire was printed in 2008, however it was not pilot tested recently. Therefore, to increase reliability of the census, it was strongly advised to organize a pilot census.

2. Since a majority of the population did not participate in a census in almost 20 years, time must be allowed for the population to understand, accept and "own" the results.

3. The communication strategy was to be organized around three "classical" axes: education material (towards teachers), advocacy material (towards politicians, head of villages and other stakeholders) and publicity campaign (towards the larger audience).

4. The advocacy and publicity campaign should be launched no later than three months before the census; one has to keep in mind.

History of Census in South Asia


Even when there was no trace of democracy in the Indian subcontinent, the British colonial government conducted censuses without any interruption from 1881 to 1941. During that period, census results served the basic requirement of planning at state and district levels. After the first census of 1881, regular censuses were conducted after every ten years up to 1941. After independence this tradition was followed by India, where a census has been conducted every 10 years and the last census was conducted in 2011. However, due to troubles in Assam in 1981 and in Kashmir in 1991, census enumeration could not be done in the two states.


Pakistan followed the tradition and conducted censuses in both its wings in 1951 and 1961. Due to the civil war in East Pakistan followed by the war with India in 1971, a census could not be held till 1972. The 1981 Census was conducted as scheduled. In 1991 a housing census was conducted. However, as there was over-reporting of individuals living in these households, a detailed census exercise was not undertaken. Later, a census was conducted in 1998 under the supervision of the Army. Eventually, in 2016, the Supreme Court took a suo moto notice and forced the Federal Government to conduct the overdue Census which is currently underway.


After becoming an independent country in 1971, Bangladesh conducted its first census in 1974 and since then it has conducted censuses in 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has the longest history of conducting a census in the SAARC region, where the first scientific census was conducted in 1871 and, after every 10 years, a census was conducted until 1931. The 1941 census was conducted in 1946 due to the world war, while the1951 census was postponed till 1953 owing to shortage of paper at that time. The next census was conducted in 1963. However, Sri Lanka managed to revert to its tradition and conducted censuses in 1971 and 1981 but the 1991 census could not be implemented due to the disturbances prevailing in northern and eastern parts of the country. Sri Lanka's last census was conducted in 2001.


The first census in Nepal was conducted in 1911 which continued after every 10 years till 1942, but due to non-publication of detailed census reports, characteristics of the population are not available. The first scientific census was completed during 1952-54 and since 1961, a census has been conducted every 10 years till 2011.


In the Maldives, the first census was conducted in 1911, followed by decennial census conducted in 1921 and 1931. Due to World War II, the 1941 census was postponed till 1946 and the next census was conducted in 1953, followed by 1957, when an annual census was conducted till 1972 then in 1974 and in 1977. Since 1985, a quinquennial census has been conducted in 1990, 1995, 2000. The 2005 census was delayed till 2006 and the last census was conducted in 2014.


In Bhutan, the first national census was conducted in 1969, followed by a census conducted in 1980. In 1990 a census enumeration was done to identify and verify genuine citizens and identify illegal settlers. The most recent census was conducted in 2005.


In Afghanistan, only a partial census was conducted in 1980 and one was planned in 2011 but it has not yet been conducted.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Apr 30, 2017
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