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EDITORIAL: It is unfortunate that provinces have still not overcome their difference regarding the Census 2017 and the Council of Common Interests (CCI) was forced to defer the final decision till after another (virtual) meeting on Monday. Even after discussing the matter for three years, the four-hour marathon session of the CCI’s 44th meeting ended with Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) pressing for release of the census data, Sindh associating it with a new census, and Balochistan asking for yet more time to think about the whole thing. All this led the Sindh government, which along with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a part of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led ruling coalition at the Centre, rejected the results of the census from the first day for under-representing the population of Sindh, to protest and remind everybody that all political parties had agreed to a third-party audit of the census yet the government, for some reason, was not willing to do so.

All this is very troubling because it makes the system run on flawed or insufficient data. The Sindh government’s spokesman, Murtaza Wahab, was only stating the obvious when he said that it was “impossible to carry out proper planning without correct census.” PPP’s frustration is understandable, and indeed justified, because it finds itself unable to make proper policies about planning and development without the latest population statistics. And the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) no doubt fears that once it is unable to give people what they need, they will simply vent their frustration at the next election regardless of the fact that it was the missing data that created some of the problems. Hopefully, this was the last time that this matter was delayed and a decision that everybody finds agreeable will finally come on Monday.

This was one of the problems that the PTI government really did inherit, so to speak, when it came to power. But that’s not enough to brush it under the carpet and its own handling of it hasn’t been something to write home about either. In fact, just last December it left its important coalition partner MQM fuming when the federal cabinet suddenly, and without any sort of consultation whatsoever, decided to approve the controversial census one fine day. That rather unpleasant surprise, especially for MQM, betrayed not just a lack of appreciation of something as important as the census on the part of the federal government, it also showed an almost unforgivable disregard for its crucial allies. MQM naturally felt stabbed in the back because they reportedly joined the ruling coalition only after PTI’s assurance about the audit of the census. That this incident came just after the prime minister himself had to go to Lahore and cajole the Chaudharys of Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) only confirmed this trend of alienating friends for no unavoidable reason.

A correctly conducted census would have proved invaluable in times like the present, when a deadly pandemic has upset development plans of central and provincial governments and it is more important than ever to know just how many people live and in which parts in order to provide targeted and timely relief. Instead everybody has had to wait three years for the centre to help the provinces overcome their differences. There can be no more delay in this matter. If an outside audit will help nudge it towards an agreeable outcome, and the central government promised as much to its friends when it cobbled together the ruling coalition, then what has prevented it from happening all this time? It seems the government took its eye off the ball somewhat in its single-minded pursuit of corruption and accountability because it let things like the census, inter-provincial coordination, and even the economy and runaway inflation, drop down the priority list. With only half the electoral cycle remaining, there is an urgent need for it to reorient its policies and address some of the country’s most pressing matters. The controversy about the census, at least, cannot be allowed to stretch any further.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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