ISLAMABAD Fast-growing Pakistan will conduct its first census in 19 years in March, the statistics bureau said on Thursday, hoping to end years of wrangling by politicians concerned about how a survey would affect the makeup of their local electorates.
Changes could be significant in a country where 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 30.
In 2015, the World Bank estimated Pakistan's population at 188.9 million but the country still uses the official 1998 figure of 134.7 million. The population has exploded since its first census in 1951, when it had 33.8 million inhabitants.
Political leaders across the country have voiced concerns about the census, fearing a loss of influence from any changes in provincial demographics.
Chief Census Commissioner Asif Bajwa said the Pakistani army had been drafted in to provide security and ensure there was no harassment of officials.
"With every civil enumerator will be a military officer to ensure that the enumerator can enter the correct data without being intimidated by local political figures," Bajwa told a press briefing in Islamabad.
Electoral seats in Pakistan's parliament are assigned using population density data, and with rural populations fluctuating due to urbanisation, powerful feudal landlords and political families fear losing influence in Islamabad.
"Some regions are over-represented in the parliament and the political elite are wary of the census because it changes the voting pattern, changes the representation in the parliament," said Shahid Faiz, chief executive of Free and Fair Election Network, an organisation collecting electoral data.
Bajwa said 200,000 military personnel would assist civilian counters to complete the 70-day data-gathering campaign, which will start on March 15.
The inclusion of Afghan refugees in the census, confirmed by Bajwa, had been strongly opposed by leaders from the country's sparsely populated Baluchistan province, where separatists are waging an insurgency.
The ethnic Baluch fear being turned into a minority in their own province due to growing populations of other communities. Similar fears have been voiced by Sindhi politicians in southern Sindh province.
In January, normally conservative Pakistan announced that the country's transgender community would be included in the 2017 census.
Originally scheduled for March, 2016, the census was postponed due to the unavailability of army personnel to oversee security.
The United Nations Population Fund will assign international observers to oversee the administration of the census, Bajwa said.
(Reporting by Saad Sayeed; Editing by Mike Collett-White)