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Census Sparks Controversy

Pashtuns in several communities argue that their numbers have been undercounted, which could affect their representation in the future parliament.

A national census, begun three years ago under the interim government, is coming under harsh criticism both from officials and ordinary citizens who charge that figures it is producing are inflated in some provinces and understated in others.

Census officials vigorously deny the charges.

The census, which has been completed in 30 of the country’s 34 provinces, is being conducted with the technical and financial assistance of the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, at a cost of seven million US dollars. The 400 census workers are employees of the central statistics bureau, now a branch of the newly formed economics ministry.

One of the main purposes of the survey is to determine population numbers prior to the parliamentary elections, slated for later this year. Seats in the 249-member body will be apportioned by region, according to the number of residents.

Given Afghanistan's sharply divided ethnic landscape, charges of count manipulation spark deep resentment.

The Pashtun majority is concerned that an undercount will reduce their representation in parliament, according to Ismail Yoon, a writer and political analyst based in the Pashtun-dominated city of Jalalabad.

“Pashtuns are concerned about the parliamentary election,” he said. “Pashtuns are the majority, and if they are not counted precisely, they will have fewer representatives in parliament. If seats are apportioned according to this census, Pashtun rights will have been violated.”

In Khost province, which is overwhelmingly Pashtun, many citizens say that they were never counted.

Sadarazam Bowery, 50, who introduced himself as head of Khost province's Olympic Committee, told IWPR that in his district residents are completely unaware of the census.

"We have repeatedly told the authorities that no one ever came to count us,” he said.

Khadimuddin, 48, a village elder also from Khost, echoed these concerns, saying that his 40-member family had not been surveyed.

“There are hundreds of thousands of people in this district,” he said, “but if the census is not done properly, they will not know.”

Mirajuddin Pattan, who as governor of Khost province was required to sign off on the final census results, said in a telephone interview that he now agrees with the complaints.

"I thought that the delegations dispatched from Kabul would be open minded, well educated persons,” he said. “I did not think they would be so careless, but when they left, people came in groups and complained that they were left out of the census process."

Pattan said that he had conveyed these concerns to the authorities in Kabul, as well as publicizing them in the local and foreign media, but has as yet received no answer.

Similar complaints have been heard in Kandahar and Nangahar provinces, both of which have large Pashtun populations.

In the Rodat district of Nangahar, according to Ismail Yoon, the process was so flawed that it had to be repeated after the population objected. President Hamed Karzai ordered a recount, which showed that over 25 per cent of the population had been left out of the original survey.

"If the census all over Afghanistan is taken the same way as it was [in Rodat district], millions of people will be left uncounted,” he said.

Meanwhile, there are allegations that the populations of Panjshir, a newly formed province whose ethnic make-up is heavily Tajik, have been seriously overstated.

According to interior ministry regulations, a region must have a population of over 300,000 to qualify for province status.

But Yoon said that the census staff was instructed that Panjshir, which past counts have shown to have a population of just over 100,000, must make the cut for province status.

An official from the census department, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed Yoon's charge.

"Last year when Hamed Karzai issued a decree to promote Panjshir to the province level, the estimated population was 360,000,” said the official. “But the census showed that the real number was 144,000.” According to this official, the final census will report that Panjshir has a population of 380,000.

Reports from the heavily Tajik northern areas of the country show fewer complaints than in the Pashtun south.

Mohammed Zahir Wahdat, governor of Balkh province, attributed the success of the census in the north to close cooperation with the census department.

“We met with the census teams, and asked them to report to us weekly,” he said. “We then showed these reports to the village elders, and others responsible for those regions.” According to Wahdat, village elders are intimately acquainted with the population in their areas, and could attest to the integrity of the survey.

Adil Shah, a resident of Mazar-e-Sharif, told IWPR that in his area, there were no problems with the survey.

”In our area, the census was taken properly" he said. “Two people guided the census staff from house to house and no one was left uncounted."

Abdul Jabar Isaqzai, deputy director of the central statistics department, dismissed the allegations of negligence and said his department fulfilled its duties with honesty and diligence all over Afghanistan.

"I totally disagree with the complaints,” he said. “Everywhere has been surveyed, and there is no house left without having been interviewed.”

He said his department worked in close cooperation with provincial and local officials when conducting the census and that census officials always asked that those who had not been contacted to come forward to be counted before the survey was complete. Only then, he said, did the governor and district administrator sign off on the population figures.

Isaqzai also said that the current survey was only a pre-census, to determine the number of people over and under 18, and their genders. A more comprehensive census will be taken in 2006, he added.

According to Isaqzai, the final census will show that the country’s population has increased by 1.92 per cent since the last survey was taken in the mid 1970s. Because conditions are still considered too dangerous to conduct the census in Paktika and Zabul, their populations will be estimated as having increased by 1.92 per cent since the 1970s. The same rule will apply in mountainous Dykundi province, where weather and terrain kept the census workers from performing their task. The remaining province, Hellmand, will be completed by early March.

Graham Jones, UNFPA’s chief technical advisor, told IWPR that his organization has already begun planning for a more comprehensive census to be conducted in June 2006. A staff of 40,000 census-takers will conduct that headcount over a four-week period at a cost of 20 million dollars.

Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff reporter based in Kabul.

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