As the much-awaited census is set to finally commence in March 2017, all concerned parties have expressed concerns regarding its transparency. Opposition senators from Balochistan and FATA have expressed serious reservations and fear the exercise is likely to be influenced by the presence of numerous foreigners in Balochistan while a large number of internally displaced persons in FATA had yet to return to their homes.

Senator Mir Kabir Ahmad Shahi from Balochistan claims that over 4 million foreigners were currently residing in Balochistan, whereas nearly 0.9 million people of Balochistan had migrated to Karachi during last few years due to the precarious law and order situation in the province. The issue of the presence of foreigners seems to be the resounding issue as Senator Kamil Ali Agha also suggested that the government should take a decision on blocked National Identity Cards and clarify whether they would be considered valid during the exercise.

These concerns suggest that there is a conspiracy to convert the Baloch nation into a minority through the census. This notion must be dispelled for it unnecessarily politicises the counting. The census is absolutely necessary to understand the demographics of Balochistan and to model its economic development. Without the numbers, we are groping in the dark to understand the province and its economic situation. We cannot rely on approximations and predictions for development policy.

While the development of Balochistan has been lagging, and politics of the centre have not allowed it to flourish as it should, the census must not be made a casualty of this on-going conflict. The government has to take some confidence building measures, to rid politicians of the region of their insecurities.

The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics is also set to spend Rs320 million on a public awareness campaign to sensitise the people across the country about the importance of population census for overall national development, and an amount of Rs7.5 billion has already been released and disbursed to provinces to make arrangements for this national exercise, which is scheduled to be held in two phases. While concerns and misgivings most certainly exist regarding the vital exercise, it must not be delayed any longer despite the problems that might influence the numbers. It is the only way forward.