Security high as Pakistan launches first census in 19 years

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Pakistan's first census since 1998 will be the basis for revising political boundaries, parliamentary seat allocations and finance

Pakistan on Wednesday launched its first census in nearly two decades, with security high as thousands of enumerators backed by the military began the enormous, politically-charged count.

The weeks-long process, a challenge in a country known for corruption and dysfunction, will deploy a team of more than 300,000 people and involve 55 million forms.

"It's a very hectic process, but we are ready for it," Nadeem Ehsan, a teacher clad in a green Pakistan Census 2017 jacket in the northwestern city of Peshawar, told AFP.

Fast-growing Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, with an estimated 200 million people, but has not held a census since 1998 due to years of bickering between politicians.

The count could redraw the political map as the country gears up for a national election next year -- a prospect that has raised fears over power bases and federal funding.

It will help give a clearer picture about religious minority numbers in the Muslim-majority country.

The exercise appeared to have gotten off to a mostly smooth start Wednesday, with security forces watching closely -- many with their weapons in their hands -- as citizens answered questions in various cities.

However some signs of confusion were beginning to emerge, particularly regarding how the transgender population -- included for the first time -- would be documented.

The census form from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) does not list transgender people, seen as a third sex in Pakistan, as an option, baffling some activists.

"If there is no mention of the third sex it would be very bad for us as our population will go unnoticed," Farzana Riaz, president of activist group TransAction, told AFP Wednesday.

Census spokesman Habibullah Khattaq confirmed enumerators had been trained to note transgenders on the form separately.

But he admitted public awareness of what exactly the census would count, and how, "has not been so wide".

- Military 'observers' -

The census will be the basis for revising political boundaries, parliamentary seat allocations and finances ahead of national elections, due to be held by the end of 2018.

Powerful Punjab province, for example, could see its political grip weaken as a result of its population not rising at a similar rate to other provinces.

And ethnic Baloch fear they will become a minority in their own province, sparsely-populated Balochistan, due to an influx of Pashtuns -- including refugees from Afghanistan whose nationality is difficult to determine due to falsified documents.

Many Pakistanis hailed it as "a good sign", however.

"It is very good, good for the public... (it) will help in providing a clearer picture of the population," Muddasir Ihsan told AFP in Peshawar.

The PBS will deploy some 119,000 people, including 84,000 enumerators, mainly teachers and local officials who will go door-to-door to count homes and then individuals.

Pakistan's powerful army says it will dispatch up to 200,000 troops for the exercise, including 44,000 participating directly in the census-taking and making a parallel count using a second form.

Asif Bajwa, the PBS's chief statistician, said the army would act as 'observers' to ensure enumerators did not inflate local counting.

But that has created some disquiet for the UN, who are concerned about the army's role as parallel data collectors.

The first census phase will take place from March 15 to April 15, the second from April 25 to May 25, and final results are expected by the end of July.

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