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EDITORIAL: The 7th population and housing census is going to be a monumentally important exercise because of a number of reasons. One, the government couldn’t start it by October 2021, as promised, but it is still honouring its word of following the 6th census, which was pretty controversial, with the 7th within five years.

Two, it will be conducted digitally and in keeping with best international practices, which means the monitoring process will have to be up to scratch. Three, it doesn’t do much good to have a disputed census that was conducted on selected data, leaving not just one province complaining very loudly but also confounding the whole process of planning and delivering.

Once the results of the 7th census are in, no provincial government should complain about being put in a position where they could do no better than grope in the dark when it came to policy formulation and planning for their election campaigns. And four, it will be conducted on the de jour instead of de facto basis, meaning that people will be counted on the basis of where they reside, not on where they are present at the time.

Considering that the last census created more confusion than clarity, and that the new one will be conducted digitally, the Census Advisory Committee (CAC) couldn’t be more right about the need for a pilot project, or test run, for risk management and disaster recovery before the actual exercise. Digital technology is no doubt the way forward and ensures transparency if properly handled, but it can also cause a lot of problems in the hands of inexperienced users. Therefore, the entire process including hiring the right staff, providing the right trainings, and then monitoring the whole thing will have to be handled meticulously. That’s why a test-run is essential. It remains to be seen, though, if the pilot and then the proper census — the latter alone can take up to 18 months or even more — can be done in time to base the next general election on it.

Surely, nobody needs to be reminded of the importance of this exercise. For a country like Pakistan that must know when and where to target development programmes, especially, proper knowledge of demographics is essential for optimal utilisation of very limited resources. Having up-to-date data at the right time can make the difference between the success and failure of any given policy. That is why planning and development decisions all across the world are increasingly taken on the basis of real-time data. In fact, the only thing that enabled the National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC) to defeat earlier waves of Covid-19 was precisely its use of data analytics, which empowered it to identify and isolate hotspots before the virus was able to spread out of most of them.

Also, while time is of the essence and the sooner the census is completed the better, it is still important not to jump into it without proper and complete homework. Nobody wants a repeat of last time, when Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) rejected the results; and the latter even complained of being stabbed in the back by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. Therefore, everybody from digital technology experts and demographers to field officers and monitors will have to be at the top of their game. That’s quite a long list of things to get done in not much time, so the government’s resolve and ability are going to be tested. It is also crucial to take all stakeholders on board before finalising anything important in order to rule out a disputed outcome like last time. This is, after all, a very expensive exercise, which makes getting everything right even more important.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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