People & Society

Census worker: Pawns in the number games

Updated Mar 22, 2018 06:44pm


Illustration by Aziza Ahmad
Illustration by Aziza Ahmad

It is 8:30 am but the April sun is already beating down hard. A small crowd of people has gathered in the large compound of Pixy Dale Government School in North Karachi. They are lined up in rows of six and seven – some huddling close to the building to avoid the sun – as if they are attending a school assembly. They are not students though. They are government employees, (mostly teachers) and state security personnel (including those from the army, navy and the Rangers) waiting to mark their attendance and begin the task the state has assigned them: to conduct the sixth national census.

Fazlur Rehman, a two-time census staffer and high school teacher, eagerly shows how tightly he runs the census operations. As a ‘charge superintendent’, he oversees the work of 18 civilian enumerators and six supervisors. They all use Pixy Dale Government School as their meeting point each morning. Civilian enumerators have been instructed never to move out of sight of the security personnel accompanying them. At the end of each day, Rehman monitors the tallying of data collected by the civilian census staff with that put together by the men in uniform — a process made mandatory by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics in the hope that it will protect the latest census from becoming controversial, as many similar exercises in the past have been.

Given the number of military uniforms present in the compound, an outsider may wonder if the men under Rehman’s charge are preparing for a battle.

####Most census workers did their work as diligently as they should have – and without complaining.

While not literally the case, an army of 91,000 census workers was deployed to go to every corner of Pakistan between March 15 and May 25, 2017. Their task was to collect a number of statistics regarding houses, households and people. With 200,000 military men accompanying them – both as security detail and as shadow enumerators – the whole exercise cost the national exchequer a whopping 17 billion rupees.

Starting at 7:30 am and sometimes continuing past 7:00 pm, the census undertaking was not for the faint-hearted. By the end of it all, at least one person from each household in Pakistan must have come into contact with one or more of the census workers.

They were easy to spot, wearing green waistcoats and carrying large rectangular red booklets. Many of them, both men and women, wore baseball caps to protect themselves against the harsh summer sun. This was not the only work hazard they faced: In cities like Karachi, Multan, Mastung and Hub, they discovered that some census blocks which were supposed to have 250 households actually consisted of up to 600 households or more. Massive migration had entirely changed certain localities in these cities from what they were only a few years ago.

In one interesting case of population explosion, Anwerzada, a primary school teacher in Thana area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Malakand district, discovered a household where a man was living with 24 children from four wives. He did not even remember all of their names.

####An army of 91,000 census workers was deployed to go to every corner of Pakistan between March 15 and May 25, 2017.

Many neighbourhoods were not quite friendly to census workers.

In Naway Kalay area of Kohat, no one was there to welcome them on a sweltering May afternoon, let alone offer them water. One enumerator waited outside a house for 15 minutes before a woman’s barely audible voice was heard from the other side of the blue steel gate. Women in the area observe strict purdah so the enumerator noted down whatever little information he could gather from someone whose identity he could not confirm. The area was identified as ‘sensitive’ in security terms. Members of various tribes, which have migrated from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas over the past few years, live here in narrow streets that witness frequent violence. According to a local journalist, nobody visits Naway Kalay at night.

Even in posh urban localities, the enumerators were not always well received. In some areas, they were reported to have been turned away, mistaken for polio administering teams. In a rather strange incident, a man died presumably while escaping from his house in New Karachi as he saw census workers approaching. He mistook them for loan collectors.

Some census workers had to contend with even worse. Take the case of Allahdad, for instance. The 48-year-old primary school teacher based in Chaman city in Balochistan was driven to a village near the Pak-Afghan border to perform his census duties. He was shocked when instead he found himself caught in the crossfire between Pakistani and Afghan security forces.

On some other occasions, violence targeted census workers themselves. A suicide bomber attacked a census team in Lahore’s eastern outskirts on April 5, 2017. Four army soldiers, an employee of the air force and two passers-by lost their lives in the attack. There were a few other similar incidents in other parts of the country.

In many other places, however, local communities self-mobilised to make the job of census workers easy.

In the small town of Bela, located in Balochistan’s Lasbela district about 200 kilometres northwest of Karachi, people from nearby goths (villages) would gather at a central point where census workers collected all the information they required. This was mainly owed to the fact that people trusted the enumerators and vice versa. Everyone knew everyone – including the census workers – because there had been relatively few demographic changes in the ethnic and social make-up of these communities in recent years.

A census enumerator flanked by security personnel collects data in Karachi | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
A census enumerator flanked by security personnel collects data in Karachi | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

Elsewhere, too, people generally looked forward to receiving census workers, hoping that being officially counted might change their circumstances for the better. The helpline at the Islamabad head office of the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics would ring frequently during the duration of the census, with people complaining that census workers had not yet taken down their personal information.

Indeed, there were complaints aplenty on both sides. In the first few days of the census, the news media pointed out that some enumerators were using lead pencils in Karachi and other parts of Sindh to fill out census forms so that the entries could be changed later. Census workers in many parts of Pakistan, especially teachers, could not attend their training sessions because these coincided with the busiest part of the academic calendar. This did not prepare them well for unexpected circumstances in the field.

Consequently many tasks were not carried out as accurately as they were supposed to have been.

Language – or “mother tongue” as the census forms stated – was one of the many grey areas that many census workers did not tackle properly, especially while enumerating multi-ethnic families. Should they have taken down the language spoken by the mother or by the father or the language spoken by all members of the family to communicate with each other? The three can be different if parents come from different ethnic groups.

####Starting at 7:30 am and sometimes continuing past 7:00 pm, the census undertaking was not for the faint-hearted

Members of the Dalit community in Mirpurkhas city, similarly, complained that some enumerators did not know the difference between an upper-caste Hindu and one from a scheduled caste. Both groups were mentioned separately on census forms but could have been mixed up due to lack of understanding among the enumerators.

Most census workers, though, did their work as diligently as they should have — and without complaining. “It is my responsibility as a Pakistani to carry out this task with honesty,” said Abdul Hakim, a senior public school teacher in Hub, Lasbela district.

If one takes into account all their countless stories, census workers represent everything that is good and bad in Pakistan — diversity, patriotism, mismanagement, hardship, overpopulation, conflict and sometimes even violence. For this reason alone, if for nothing else, the demographic enumerators should be the most remarkable persons of the year 2017.

The writer was previously a staffer at the Herald.

This article was published in the Herald's January 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.