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Politics of demography

Afrasiab Khan Khattak

Afrasiab Khan Khattak

The term census was originally coined by Romans to keep a count of the male population fit for military services.
But during the socio-historical evolution of the world it mainly came to mean national population and housing censuses that provides a picture of levels of education, age, sex, social status and other characteristics of the people.
By now it has become an important function of the modern state system for effectively fulfilling its national and international obligations.
Using it in the aforementioned sense the United Nations defines census as “individual enumeration, universality within a defined territory, simultaneity and defined periodicity”.
It is also on the recommendation of the UN that holding the census every ten years has come to be regarded as best international practice.

As we have seen, the process of national population and housing census is essentially the process of national demographic data collection and that is where it acquires serious political significance, ceasing to be merely an ordinary statistical information.
The accuracy and rational use of national demographic data not only plays vital role in an all round socio-economic development of a given society but it also has its own significance in determining the quality of vertical and horizontal democracy.
It’s crucial for shaping effective policies and priorities.
For the same reasons inordinate delays in conducting the census can have negative consequences.
Although state bureaucracies at times present ad hoc alternative arrangements to the actual census such as projections based on group sampling or estimates based on assumed population growth rates but these alternative methods have many limitations.
It’s particularly so in a country like Pakistan where we still haven’t been able to register the entire population of the country and our birth and death registration is not dependable at all.
The non-existence of local governments for a very long time has also hindered the state’s ability to keep track of its population record.

The surge of young people is the most important issue in many developing countries, including Pakistan, in today’s world.
If handled properly the youth bulge is an asset that can ensure a prosperous future for the country.
By channeling the enormous energy and vitality of our youth who are estimated to constitute the majority of our population we can accelerate the speed of economic development and provide socio-cultural space for our young people to work for wholesome human development.
But the achievement of such objectives in an extreme form of a security state are unimaginable.
For many decades around 80 percent of the country’s annual budget has been going to debt servicing, defense and administration.
Nothing much is left for investment in the social sector and human development.
Even in this day and age we haven’t been able allocate even 4 percent of our GDP to education, the minimum recommended by the UN.
This obviously requires revisiting state’s priorities in resource allocation.
Sadly the issue has yet to acquire the required level of prominence in national discourse.

Population explosion is another serious issue faced by Pakistan.
It’s a situation where the size of population goes beyond the capacity of the local resources to sustain them.
It also refers to the negative balance between human population and its natural environment.
We all know that Pakistan is literally sleeping over the ticking bomb of population explosion.
State sponsored religious extremism has made any rational debate on this issue impossible.
Public discussion on family planning has become taboo.
What future can Pakistan possibly have with the population explosion, which is one of the main factors behind disastrous environmental degradation?

There are some historically interesting and important aspects of demographic politics in Pakistan.
In 1947, at the time of the country’s inception, East Bengal that became East Pakistan had a population larger than the total population of all the four provinces situated in the western part.
East Pakistan was at least 56 percent of the total population of the then Pakistan (some Bangladeshi historians put the figure at 64 percent).
This demographic reality gave the upper hand to Bengali elites who had played a pivotal role in creating Pakistan.
Punjabi bureaucratic elite (both civil and military) known for siding with colonial maters during the freedom struggle was extremely reluctant to accept this reality.
This proved to be a stumbling block in preparing a democratic constitution for the new state leading to serious delay in the process.
In 1954 after launching a coup the Punjabi dominated bureaucracy dissolved the Constituent Assembly and arbitrarily imposed the 1956 Constitution based on the dubious scheme of One Unit and Parity.
For countering the population weightage of the then East Pakistan all the four provinces in the western part of the country along with FATA were merged in one province called West Pakistan with Lahore as its capital.
It was only a partial solution, as even then the Bengalis would have enjoyed majority in the National Assembly elected on the basis of adult franchise.
So in the name of  supreme national interest”  Bengalis were forced to accept 50 percent representation in the National Assembly (equal to west Pakistan) disenfranchising a part of their population.
This was called ‘Parity’ but it was actually a fraud based on colonial exploitation which led to the disintegration of Pakistan in 1971.
It is also a matter of record that up till 1971, in united Pakistan, population wasn’t the main criteria for distribution of finances among the provinces as in that case Bengal would have gained more finances.
Population became the basis for NFC award after the 1973 Constitution.
Interestingly you wouldn’t find this part of history in our history books nor in the so-called Pakistan Studies courses.
So our younger generations are blissfully ignorant of history and unable/unequipped to understand the exploitative strategies of the rulers.

FATA Pashtuns present another example of demographic politics used for colonial type disempowerment and exploitation.
According to the bogus figures concocted by bureaucracy total population of the seven political agencies and six frontier regions of FATA is 4.
5 (or 4.
8 ) million.
But shockingly enough, the number of registered IDPs from only some parts of North Waziristan during the recent military operation exceeded 1 million.
Which means millions of FATA Pashtuns are not counted.
They are still disenfranchised, deprived of their share in national finance distribution and services.

All this underlines the significance of transparent and accurate census and rational and correct handling of demographic issues.

Writer: Afrasiab Khan Khattak

 The writer is a regular contributor to THE PASHTUN TIMES. He is a retired senator and a leader of Awami National Party (ANP). He tweets    @a_siab 


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