Uncovering Karachi's Hidden Population: What Could 'Census 2023' Reveal?

Uncovering Karachi's Hidden Population: What Could 'Census 2023' Reveal?
Accurately counting the population during a specific period is the fundamental aim of the census, which also plays a critical role in appropriate distribution of financial resources, delimitation of electoral constituencies, and assessment of living standards. In Pakistan, the population census provides invaluable information on families (households) and individuals residing in the country's various provinces and cities.

The National Finance Commission (NFC) utilises this information to decide the distribution of financial resources based on the population. This means that provinces and territories with larger populations receive a greater share of resources, ensuring a fair and just allocation of available funds.

In addition, the population census is used to determine the number of constituencies in both the national and provincial assemblies, with a requirement to review and restructure constituencies every ten years to reflect changes in the size of Pakistan's population. As a result, regions with larger populations have greater representation in the assemblies, providing fairer representation in the democratic process.

The importance of the census can be understood more in depth when it comes to social and economic planning. It helps prepare estimates for the requirement of vital public service facilities such as schools and hospitals, and provides valuable statistics to planning agencies about the actual problems faced by the population. Census data also plays a central role in determining the resource allocation for a particular province or city.

The accuracy of census results relies heavily on the completeness of data collection, survey methods quality, and willingness to participate. In Karachi, a large and diverse city, getting accurate census results are a challenge due to the city's size, rapid population growth, and informal settlements. Despite these and other obstacles, collecting accurate census data is crucial for effective planning and allocation of resources.

It is important to note that census data provides a snapshot of the population at a specific point in time. The actual population demographics, however, change over time and are determined by factors such as migration, natural population growth, and urban development.

Pakistan is in the process of conducting its seventh census, but accuracy concerns linger over the count for Karachi, the country's largest city and commercial hub with a population of over 30 million. Traditionally, Pakistan conducts a census every decade, with the last one conducted in 2017. However, a 2011 amendment to the Statistics Act lifted the 10-year ban, allowing the government to conduct the census whenever necessary.

The accuracy of the Karachi census has always been a sensitive issue due to the way statistics are compiled. In 2017, experts and political parties contested the census data, claiming that it displayed a low population for the city. The 2017 census reported a population of 16,051,521 for Karachi, while the 1998 census showed 9,806,565. Despite this, the population of Karachi had actually grown to 20 million by 2017.

The Department of Statistics has now launched the seventh census, but the accuracy of the count for Karachi is in question due to the reliability of data collected for variables such as birth rates, death rates, and internal migration which has increased in recent years. Additionally, the 2017 census recorded many residents of Karachi as living in their hometowns based on their permanent addresses, despite actually residing in Karachi and utilising its resources. This led to an undercount of Karachi's population, and an over-representation of other areas in the allocation of assembly seats and resources.

Determining whether the population count for Census 2023 should be based on citizens' permanent or temporary address is crucial. The Statistics Department has clarified that individuals who have lived in Karachi for six months or plan to stay for the next six months will be counted in the city. However, it is uncertain how the questionnaires used for enumeration will address internal migration, which is necessary to determine an individual's length of stay in a particular location. It is important to consider how the enumerator determines the respondent's actual length of stay or future plans to stay in the city. The optimal solution is to count individuals where they currently reside, particularly in the case of whole family residence. Thus, it is essential to count individuals where they are presently living.

The population of Karachi is continuously increasing, and if accurately counted, it would exceed 30 million. People from all over the country have relocated to Karachi for employment, usually for six to eight months. Additionally, the city has seen a significant increase in the number of people from tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Moreover, the city is also home to a significant number of Afghan refugees, Bengali, Burmese Rohingya populations, and families from the Saraiki belt. Families affected by the 2010 floods a decade ago are still living in Karachi. However, thousands of families can be found living in Karachi for decades, even though their permanent residence in NADRA records remains unchanged: which means they are technically still considered residents of their hometowns and not Karachi.

The demarcation of boundaries is a crucial aspect of achieving an accurate and comprehensive population count, but it is also a complex and politically sensitive issue. There are several potential issues that could arise at the block level, such as incomplete coverage, border disputes, political interference, and data quality, which need to be addressed for the 2023 census to provide dependable data that can support sustainable planning and efficient policymaking in Pakistan.

The undercounting of Karachi's population has led to feelings of exploitation and discontent among its residents. In 2017, incomplete data collection during the census reported only a 63 percent increase in the city's population over 19 years, failing to account for the actual growth that had taken place over that time period.

Many residents, including several Bengali and Pakhtun communities, were either ignored or inaccurately recorded in their hometowns. This has hampered effective planning for the city's basic infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals, housing, roads, and utilities. To ensure a people-friendly plan and estimate the city's actual needs, census authorities must improve transparency in the census process.

The author is an urban planner and geographer who is also Associate Director of the Karachi Urban Lab at IBA.