Pakistan launches first census in 19 years amid tight security

Pakistan launches first census in 19 years amid tight security

A government official collects data from a resident during a survey in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Wednesday. — AP

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistan on Wednesday launched its first census in nearly two decades, with security high as thousands of enumerators backed by the military began the enormous, politically-charged count. The weeks-long process, a challenge in a country known for corruption and dysfunction, will deploy a team of more than 300,000 people and involve 55 million forms — as well as a second, separate form distributed by the military. “It’s a very hectic process, but we are ready for it,” Nadeem Ehsan, a teacher clad in a green Pakistan Census 2017 jacket in the northwestern city of Peshawar, said. “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.” Fast-growing Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, with an estimated 200 million people, but has not held a census since 1998 due to years of bickering between politicians. 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. It will help give a clearer picture about religious minority numbers in the Muslim-majority country. The count is also set to document the transgender population for the first time, though activists expressed concern about accuracy. The census form from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) does not list transgender people, seen as a third sex in Pakistan, as an option; but enumerators have been told to write it on the form where needed. However, with enumerators hastily trained after the government only gave the green light for the census to begin three months ago, there were fears the method may not be precise. “If there is no mention of the third sex it would be very bad for us as our population will go unnoticed,” Farzana Riaz, president of Shemale Association, said on Wednesday. The census will be the basis for revising political boundaries, parliamentary seat allocations and finances ahead of national elections, due to be held by the end of 2018. Powerful Punjab province, for example, could see its political grip weaken as a result of its population not rising at a similar rate to other provinces. And ethnic Baloch fear they will become a minority in their own province, sparsely-populated Balochistan, due to an influx of Pashtuns — including refugees from Afghanistan whose nationality is difficult to determine due to falsified documents. The PBS will deploy some 119,000 people, including 84,000 enumerators, mainly teachers and local officials who will go door-to-door to count homes and then individuals. Pakistan’s powerful army says it will dispatch up to 200,000 troops for the exercise, including 44,000 participating directly in the census-taking and making a parallel count using a second form. Organizers in Peshawar said each team led by one enumerator would be accompanied by three soldiers and four police. As the census got underway Wednesday, security forces stood watching closely — many with their weapons in their hands — as citizens answered questions. Asif Bajwa, the PBS’s chief statistician, said the army would act as ‘observers’ to ensure enumerators did not inflate local counting. — AFP