Every census conducted in Pakistan since independence has been controversial but the latest one seems set to take the cake. Whether it is the urban-rural disparity (much has been said about how the definition of urban in Pakistan is flawed and leads to consistent under-estimation of people living in urbanised or urbanising areas); the seriously under-estimated population of transgender persons (it was a good decision to count them separately but either they did not identify themselves, or enumerators failed to record the obvious); or the fact that population growth completely belies the last two decade’s data on contraceptive prevalence (we should effectively bin the Pakistan Demographic Health Survey, which has been estimating population growth rates at under 2 percent for some years now); almost everything about this census can be debated to death. Much has and more will be written about the census results, but for this piece, lets just concentrate on analyzing the more stark changes in numbers (compared to the 1998 census).The dramatic increase in the population of Balochistan implies that Afghan refugees are finally being counted as residents. While this is a welcome step (we need to know how many people live in this country, regardless of their legal status), any change of policy that this represents should have been clearly explainedFirst, the cities. Karachi’s population was estimated at 9.8 million in 1998. In 2017, nineteen years later, it is said to have grown to 14.9 million, or an average annual growth rate of 2.2 percent. In effect, this means that while population in the country as a whole grew at 2.4 percent, the growth rate of its largest city and commercial hub remained lower than the average for the country as a whole. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that Karachi’s birth rates are lower than the rest of Pakistan, given the relatively high literacy and education rates here. But the city has historically grown more through migration than through births. The latest figures would suggest that net migration to Karachi has been much lower in the last two decades than at any time in its previous history. Granted that Karachi has had its share of problems — a breakdown of law and order, services that are poor or non-existent, a climate that has been rendered unpleasant by pollution and excessive use of concrete. But the city is still generating jobs and business, as evidenced by the fact that it accounts for about 60 percent of direct tax collection, and property prices are on the increase. One can believe that Karachi’s growth would level off, but these numbers just don’t ring true. Lahore, in contrast, is said to have been growing at just over 4 percent a year, well above the national growth rate, and has effectively doubled in size since the last census. This may very well be true — Lahore is the centre of the universe for the ruling party and the resources poured into the city, compared to the rest of the province, are disproportionately high. It would make sense for Lahore to attract a huge influx from the hinterland, and that’s what seems to have happened.Other cities that have almost doubled in size are Peshawar and Islamabad, both growing at an estimated 3.5 percent a year. Again, this makes sense. Here the reasons are probably not so much economic as security related. Peshawar has clearly attracted migrants from the tribal areas as well as the restive southern districts. At the same time, the city has seen an out-migration of its wealthy residents to nearby Islamabad. On balance though, the growth in both cities seems plausible. What is not plausible is the growth in Islamabad’s rural population, which is estimated at over 6 percent! Anyone who has visited Islamabad and its environs knows that there is hardly anything here that can be considered rural. What is clearly happening is that the mushroom growth of housing societies in Islamabad’s suburbs is being counted as an increase in rural population. Given the extravagance of the typical farmhouse in Chak Shehzad and the mansions in Bani Gala, one can only laugh at the bureaucratic mindset which insists on following a definition set in stone and considers these areas as rural.Next, lets look at the provinces. Punjab’s growth rate is said to have slackened to 2.1 percent, but in a remarkable twist, its rural population is said to have grown at just 1.8 percent per annum on average., compared to an urban growth rate of 2.7 percent In 1998 also, the rural population growth rate in the province was lower than the urban, signifying a degree of out-migration from rural areas into cities, but this census shows that that trend has intensified. Fine — we can live with that.But what in the world is going on in Baluchistan? In 1998, the population is said to have been growing at 2.5 percent per annum (1.9 percent in rural areas). In 2017, this has increased to 3.4 percent (3.3 percent in rural areas). This is clearly unprecedented, and defies common sense. Has infant mortality and life expectancy in the province improved drastically? If not, which is probably the case, than the only thing that explains the dramatic increase in the population is that Afghan refugees are finally being counted as residents. While this is a welcome step (we need to know how many people live in this country, regardless of their legal status), any change of policy that this represents should have been clearly explained. KP represents a similar dilemma though the annual average growth rate of population has not changed since 1998 — the fact that it has not changed in spite of out-migration shows that groups that were not previously being counted, now are.Sindh was always the most urbanised province, and this trend has continued, but the urban population is now in a majority (52 percent compared to 48 percent in 1998). Given that growth rates in Karachi and Hyderabad have been low, Sindh’s transformation into a majority urban province has probably been informed more by the designation of areas previously given as rural, as urban. But that can only be confirmed once the detailed figures are published.Overall, the census has raised more questions than it has answered, and it will be debated for some time to come. It would be good to hear from the authorities in this regard — they should respond to at least the more stringent criticism with something other than “all the provinces had monitoring committees.” This is one exercise the credibility of which should not be in question. Too much depends on the census figures, from the division of resources across provinces to the delimitation of constituencies and seats in the legislature. The writer is an economist and policy analyst based in Islamabad Published in Daily Times, August 31st 2017.