A questionable census

By Dr Nasra M Shah
Published in Business Recorder on August 15, 2023

On 5th August, the Council of Common Interests unanimously approved the results of the 7th Population Census of Pakistan, and immediately received a note of thanks from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), the architect of the Census.

In May 2023, Pakistan was declared to have a population of 249.6 million and an annual growth rate of more than 3 percent. This number was revised downward to 241.5 in August, and an annual growth rate of 2.55 %.

The rapid decline of the population from 250 to 241.5 million in a few weeks raises many questions and calls for an explanation.

On what basis was the revision made? Did the PBS conduct a post-enumeration survey to enable this revision? Or, it made some modelled statistical calculations? Beyond professional accuracy, were there any motivations or dynamics that impelled the revision?

Demographers and related experts had raised serious questions even about the provisional figures, and the revised data does not eliminate those questions. A webinar held on June 15 under the sponsorship of the Population Association of Pakistan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVr4AziNpe8&ab_channel=PopulationAssociationofPakistan%5BPAP%5D) highlighted many features and facts that cast doubt on the quality of the 2023 Census. The revised results shown above generate additional questions. The decline of about 8 million persons between 22nd May and 5th August did not occur proportionally in each province. Instead, 7 of the 8 million apparently ‘disappeared’ in the province of Baluchistan, while no change was noted in Islamabad. What are the reasons for this?

Despite a lower number of population produced in the revision, the annual growth rate of the population (2.55 %) still seems too high, indicating a possible over-count. The previous intercensal period had yielded a growth rate of about 2.4 % between 1998 and 2017, and was also considered an over-estimate.

A further increase between 2017 and 2023 is therefore implausible for several reasons. The growth rate is based on the net difference between births and deaths in a country, and the net difference between immigration into and emigration from a country. Previous recent surveys indicate that birth as well as death rates have shown small steady declines during the last decade.

Also, there is no evidence of high net migration into the country that could possibly account for the increase in the growth rate. The demographic processes that determine the population growth rate therefore do not justify the unprecedented increase. Furthermore, previous research studies and data sources do not support the rise in the growth rate.

Demographers have argued that the 7th census was conducted in haste without adequate preparation and contrary to the advice of the Advisory Committee. The 2023 Census was the first one that attempted to count the total population digitally by using computer tablets.

The new digital tools of data collection required more rigorous training than provided. It has been noted by the public that the data collection officer sometimes used a simpler hand-written form with fewer items of information than the actual ‘digital’ Census form.

The simpler form was filled in manually by the household occupants, returned to the enumerator and then entered into the computer. This form asked for the CNIC that was not requested by the actual Census. Some inaccuracies probably occurred due to this apparently dual system of data collection.

Confusion about the persons to be included in the Census was also present. The enumerator was asked to include each ‘usual’ resident who had lived in the house for 6 months or more. It is unclear how the domestic helpers or migrant workers were counted; in their place of origin or the place where they had been working for more than 6 months. It is possible that they were counted at both places or missed at both, the former leading to over-counting and latter to under-counting.

The overwhelming evidence points to over-counting of the population, acknowledged by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the main architect of the Census. What explains this extensive over-counting? The population number is a central feature of allocating financial resources to the federal and provincial governments, as well as the number of seats in the Assemblies. Thus, mechanisms that aided the over-enumeration of the population could have been present.

The Census is an expensive exercise and its accuracy is vital for realistic and valid planning of social services in the country, and its constituent parts. Over-counting the population to achieve greater financial and political resources thus raises a serious alarm and calls for a de-linking of the Census enumeration from these processes.

The concerned authorities must undertake an objective evaluation of the Census results in consultation with demographic experts to provide valid and reliable estimates and ensure that future Censuses can minimize the errors experienced in the 2023 Census.

Finally, if we believe the high growth rate, this is indeed bad news for Pakistan that is already facing colossal economic, political and environmental challenges and cannot afford to feed and educate the rising flood of newborns.

=====================================================================
**Population Census of Pakistan, 2023**
=====================================================================
ADMIN UNIT       POPULATION (mill)           Difference    Difference
                                               May-Aug        May-Aug
=====================================================================
                22nd May*    5th August**      (mill)             (%)
=====================================================================
PAKISTAN         249.57         241.49          -8.08           -3.24
KPK               39.82          40.85          +1.03           +2.59
PUNJAB           127.47         127.68          +0.21           +0.16
SINDH             57.93          55.69          -2.24           -3.87
BALOCHISTAN       21.98          14.89          -7.09          -32.26
ISLAMABAD          2.36           2.36           0.00            0.00
=====================================================================
*Provisional results shared by the Chief Statistician, PBS
**Final results approved by the Council of Common Interests
=====================================================================

Dr Nasra M Shah

The writer is a Professor at the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, Lahore School of Economics, and President of the Population Association of Pakistan

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