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National census a priority in Pakistan

Overcrowding, poverty and terrorism pushing nation to the brink

National census a priority in Pakistan
Silent Thinker, Lahore

August 28, 2012

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It is normal during the Eid holidays to find a seat on a bus, but this year it was nearly impossible. Many travelers returned from bus stations empty-handed. Bus services had sold out of tickets on three consecutive days. The lucky few who got tickets had to wait hours for them. “It was depressing running from one window to another, waiting in long queues and paying for overpriced tickets,” one local man told me. The country’s entire transportation system ground to a halt this year. It had far too few vans or buses, the only mode of transportation left for a middle-class person as the railway system is in its final gasps of life. Pakistan’s population was 32.5 million at the time of independence in 1947. It has now swelled to 180 million, with a growth rate of 2.3 percent – the highest in South Asia. According to recent media reports, population in urban areas has risen from 65.28 million in 2011 to 67.55 million this year. And rapid urbanization continues, as provincial governments spend entire budgets on their capital cities while ignoring the needs of rural regions. The lack of health facilities, quality education, employment opportunities and access to electricity in rural villages keeps the flow of migrants to larger cities steady. In Lahore, as in other cities, it is common to see gridlocked traffic in front of schools during rush hour.  The number of cars keeps rising, as roads seem much narrower. Each shop has its own price index, and the middle class survives by working more than one job. If you wish to visit a park or shopping mall on weekends, the slightest distraction can result in losing track of your children. Despite increasing economic and social challenges, the government has shown no interest in conducting a census since 1998. “There is no documentation of society since many no-go areas have sprung up across the country. Authorities are hesitant especially after the capture of Osama bin Laden and other high profile terror lords from ordinary homes,” said Wajahat Masood, a political analyst, during a forum over the weekend. The population explosion has also added to the arsenal of terrorists. In South Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan, poor families have been dedicating one of their sons to jihad against American and NATO forces and their supporters. They end up being suicide bombers. “We call them phattu [exploders]. The basic training involves keeping the children beneath ground and urging them to trample on baby chicks. This is done to extract every human emotion,” a local lawyer told me. “In turn they are the ones who are killed in operations by armed forces. The puppeteers remain safe in the neighboring country.” Religious minorities are demanding a new census for another reason. The number of seats for non-Muslims in the national assembly has stood at 10 since the 1980s. Similarly, minority ministers have not increased beyond 23 in the four provincial assemblies. Ahead of general elections in April next year, Christians are mobilizing to raise voter awareness. One NGO says it is planning a Christian census. “As per government records, there are only 1.8 million registered Christian voters. Churches say we are about three crore [30 million]. We need to register our precious votes if we want our voice in elected houses,” said Munawar Kasmi, vice-chairman of Human Care Society. A census can help Christians in assessing the socio-economic situation for minorities. It can result in making pro-Christian policies as well as opening new schools, churches and projects in communities where they are needed. But it is useful only if the authorities are willing to study it thoroughly and work out new strategies. I remember an education census conducted by Caritas Pakistan for Christians in Lahore a few years ago. The findings were simply piled up in storerooms after the bishop issued a new vision statement. Similarly, the country desperately needs a new census and then a new national strategy based upon its findings. Energy shortages, inflation and a war on terror have changed the country in the past decade. There are few resources and far too many people in need of them. Without a process to assess the basic components of society – its citizens – and no plan to refurbish the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, a failing transportation system will be the least of Pakistan’s worries. Silent Thinker is the pseudonym of a Catholic commentator based in Lahore
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