After a lapse of 19 years, Pakistan’s 9th census began last week, amid controversies.Not only various political parties have petitioned to the courts for rectifying the errors in the census but also civil society organisations have raised concerns about the way the census is being conducted. However, the electronic media and the press are sporadically reporting with arudimentary understanding of the census, whose implications for the country are as grave as the general election.

It seems that the present government fails to see the point in informing the public about the census, as it has not developed any communication strategy for the census. Given the information blackout on the on-going census, it is very much feared that there will be a lack of consensus on the results of the census.

Census has always been a controversial affair, even more so at the inception of British colonial rule in India when the contemporary censuses were first conducted in the 19th century. Grand efforts were made by the British to douse any suspicion caused by educating the colonial subjects about the usefulness of census for their education, health and employment.

The Pakistani government can forget the lessons learnt on census worldwide on its own peril. In many countries, despite the successful census taking, census results have quite often been received with suspicion and scepticism. As in Pakistan, this takes many forms. Some people believe that information stored in government files will be used against them, so they fear giving correct information to the census takers. Some genuinely fear that census data can artificially inflate the counts of some groups at the expense of other groups. The marginalised segment fear that census results will be used for fiscal purposes and may lead to increase in taxation. If the public is not aware of the lengthy process of compilation of the census, even the perceived delays in the release of census results can become one of the leading causes of the mistrust among the people.

A comprehensive communication strategy divided into pre- and post-census phasesis needed to address the concerns of the all the stakeholders of society. Such a strategy should have been timely developed,with a clear goal to improve the understanding of the census process, increase voluntary participation,and enhance the credibility of census results.

Learning from the international best practices can be the first step to devise a communication strategy to educate the citizens on the census. In Italy, to prepare the young generation for the census, a simulation of the census in schools was conducted,where students acted as enumerators,which explained to them what census is, how it works and what is its usefulness. Even the very image of the team of male dominated census- takers, clerks with police escorts and soldiers holding magisterial powers is threatening for the rural population and needs a drastic makeover.

The communication strategy should also focus on the last phase, when the census results will be released, in order to promote a consensus and the usage of census data by the public and institutions. A series of dissemination workshop for the parliamentarians should also be held,as they are major stakeholders in the national planning process and assist them to understand the content of the census results and how they can be utilised.

The census is a national data gathering exercise, which is the only informed basis of reliable statistics for the macroeconomic management of a country and for many it is the hallmark of what constitutes a nation. Failure to achieve a national consensus on the results of the census will pose a significant threat to the sovereignty of the country, which must be offset through a robust communication strategy.