Pakistan’s first digital census, the recently concluded 7th National Census, has raised suspicions and concerns among experts, political parties, and activists, although on August 5th, the Council of Common Interests unequivocally authorized the results of Pakistan’s seventh population census, prompting a notation of appreciation from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), the architect of the Census. Pakistan’s population was estimated to be 249.6 million in May 2023, with an annual growth rate of over 3 percent.
This number was revised down to 241.5 in August, representing a 2.55 percent annual growth rate. In a few weeks, the population dropped from 250 million to 241.5 million, which generates many concerns and demands an explanation.
As of May 2, Karachi, the largest metropolis in Pakistan, had a population of 15.85 million, a decrease of approximately 1 percent since the last census. However, according to specialists, pregnancies and migration should have contributed to the city’s population growth. This inconsistency has prompted concerns about the accuracy of the census, which could spark public protests and further destabilize an already shaky government.
Before the government publishes the final results, a large number of Pakistanis demand a transparent population count. After six deadline revisions, the census field operations concluded on May 15, contributing to doubts about the accuracy of the data.
On what grounds did the revision take place? Did the PBS execute a post-enumeration survey to facilitate this revision? Or did it perform some calculated statistical models? Were there any motives or forces besides the need for professional accuracy that prompted the revision?
Even with the preliminary figures, demographers and related experts had raised significant concerns, and the revised data do not eliminate those concerns. The Population Association of Pakistan sponsored a webinar on June 15 that highlighted numerous characteristics and facts that cast doubt on the quality of the 2023 Census.
The revised results displayed above raise new concerns. The decline of approximately 8 million people between 22 May and 5 August did not affect each province proportionally. Instead, it appears that 7 of the 8 million ‘disappeared’ in the province of Baluchistan, while Islamabad remained unchanged. What are the underlying causes?
Despite a decrease in the number of people counted in the revision, the annual growth rate of the population (2.55%) still seems excessively high, suggesting an overcount. Between 1998 and 2017, the previous intercensal period produced a growth rate of approximately 2.4%, which was also considered an overestimate.
A further increase between 2017 and 2023 is improbable due to a number of factors. The growth rate is determined by the net difference between a country’s births and fatalities, as well as the net difference between immigration into and emigration from a country.
In the last ten years, both the birth and death rates have decreased steadily, according to recent surveys. In addition, there is no evidence of significant net migration into the country that could account for the growth rate increase.
Therefore, the demographic mechanisms that determine the rate of population development do not justify the unprecedented increase. In addition, prior research studies and data sources do not corroborate the growth rate increase.
According to demographers, the seventh census was conducted in a rush, without adequate preparation, and against the advice of the Advisory Committee. The 2023 Census was the first to attempt a digital census of the entire population using computer tablets. The new digital data collection instruments required more extensive training than was provided.
It has been noted by the public that the data collection officer sometimes used a simplified hand-written form with fewer items of information than the actual ‘digital’ Census form. The more straightforward form was manually completed by household members, returned to the enumerator, and then entered into the computer. This form requested the CNIC, which was not a requirement of the actual Census. Several inaccuracies were likely introduced by this apparent dual data collection system.
There was also confusion regarding the individuals to be included in the Census. The enumerator was instructed to include every ‘ordinary’ resident who had resided in the home for at least six months. It is unclear whether domestic caregivers and migrant employees were considered in their country of origin or in the location where they had worked for over six months. It is possible that they were tallied or omitted at both locations, with the former resulting in overcounting and the latter in undercounting.
The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the principal architect of the Census, acknowledges that the overwhelming evidence points to a population overcount. Why is this extensive overcounting occurring? Allocating financial resources to the federal and provincial administrations, as well as the number of seats in the Assemblies, relies heavily on population size. Thus, mechanisms that contributed to the overcounting of the population may have existed.
The overcounting of the population to obtain more financial and political resources raises grave concerns and calls for the decoupling of the Census count from these processes. The relevant authorities must conduct an objective evaluation of the Census results in consultation with demographic experts in order to provide valid and dependable estimates and ensure that future Censuses will be able to mitigate the errors encountered in 2023.
Activists such as Yasmin Lehri from Balochistan, which has been afflicted by a nationalist insurgency, argue that security issues in numerous regions impeded the accumulation of data. In addition, cultural conventions precluded women from interacting with male enumerators, which may have resulted in inaccurate estimates.
These claims were refuted by a PBS representative who stated that all residents present for at least six months or planning to remain were tallied. She defended the random verification procedure on the grounds that a large number of women lacked national identification cards, rendering card-based tallying impractical.
Lastly, if the high growth rate is accurate, this is indeed poor news for Pakistan, which is already confronting enormous economic, political, and environmental challenges and cannot afford to feed and educate the rising number of infants.
For equitable resource allocation, political representation, and development planning, accurate population data is crucial. The controversy surrounding Pakistan’s seventh national census emphasizes the need for openness and accuracy in this vital endeavor. To ensure a just and equitable distribution of resources and political power as the government prepares to release final results, it is imperative to resolve the concerns raised by experts and activists.