Urban Population Under Reporting: Critical Issue in Census 2017


By Zahid Asghar

Data serve as bedrock for governments to plan, develop and improve socio-economic health of its subjects. Timely and accurate data is key to set goals, and to monitor and evaluate progress on these goals. Census data is one of the most important data for a country and record keeping of socio-economic health of a society. It is like anthropometric indicators of children by medical practitioners to assess and monitor growth of children. Only data based or evidence based approach can have chance of meeting national goals with success. Gut instincts approaches are certain failure in current data-driven decision making world.

Lack of relevant data or misrepresented data make it very difficult to plan issues as per needs of the society.

Pakistan conducted its 6th census in 2017 after a delay of 9 years. Census results have far reaching consequences in future for political cum socio-economic conditions of the country. Preliminary results are released and total population is mentioned around 210 million. If we set aside political controversies and just have a look only on urban population aspect of our census results. We shall observe serious anomalies.

Relevant and accurate census data is probably one of the most important statistics a country has at national level since it is measured normally after a period of 10 years. Any error or omission in it means anything based on data will have consequences at least for another 10 years.

Pakistan’s 10 major cities population is reported below and growth rates seemed very uneven. What led to this uneven growth in expansion of cities needs careful assessment? Is it new definition of urban areas for some cities? Is there any mismeasurement in urban population of certain cities? What led to have certain cities urban boundaries redefined while other cities urban boundaries remain those of 1998 census? These are the questions which need very careful attention and are not in the capacity of Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS).



Listing some rural areas as urban and vice versa has strong political economy. Lahore district as a whole is considered as urban implies that even rural parts which have yet not urban amenities will claim for urban resources and its land will become very costly. Land elites will earn huge amounts by converting their land into housing societies under the title of Lahore metropolitan area. On the contrary, urban area in many other cities of Pakistan will enjoy all the urban amenities without paying taxes for enjoying those facilities. For example, Rawalpindi and Islamabad has DHA, BAHRIA TOWN, POLICE FOUNDATION, SAWAN GARDEN, NAVAL ANCHORAGE, PAKISTAN TOWN etc all are not included in urban areas but they enjoy all urban facilities.

Islamabad Metropolitan Corporation is spending billions of rupees to extend Expressway by having 7-lanes signal free roads for all these societies while these societies don’t share any burden in this cost. Islamabad rural area growth rate is more than 6%. Reality is that it has hardly any rural growth. Bahria Golf City, Bahria Enclave, Park Enclave and most of other societies make Islamabad rural growth more than urban growth. Same is the case with Karachi where millions living in urban Karachi for decades are declared living in rural areas.

Our urban population is underestimated. This results into small urban population paying heavy taxes to facilitate elite suburb societies. This makes our cities resource deficient and provision of quality of different services (water, sanitation, sewerage, garbage collection) is compromised.

This also holds true for Multan, Peshawar, Gujranwala and in all other cities of Pakistan. Ali Reza (2003), and other researchers have shown that Pakistan is at least 60% urbanized using 1998 census. No one has rejected their hypothesis so far, therefore, if we really want to have evidence based decision making we must respect well thought research findings.

Our urban population is underestimated. This results into small urban population paying heavy taxes to facilitate elite suburb societies. This makes our cities resource deficient and provision of quality of different services (water, sanitation, sewerage, garbage collection) is compromised.

Consequently, our city centers are in dilapidated conditions and are not business friendly.City centers which are hub of domestic commerce and engine of economic growth have become origin of problems due to lack of funds for infrastructure development in city centers.

The 21st is not only a century of cities. Cities have played remarkable role in rapid economic development both in developed countries and developing countries like India, Vietnam and Brazil. Pakistan can also make its cities as engine of growth. But for this,there is need for accurate accounting of urban population.There is an urgent need to address this issue of urban population from census 2017 data. Only accurate count of urban population will help policy makers to think and strategize about future of our cities. Otherwise I fear our cities will not be knowledge generators, places of idea sharing, centers of innovation but our cities will be hub of problems.


Zahid Asghar is a faculty member at Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU), Islamabad, Pakistan.


Disclaimer: This is a guest post. The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of the Data Stories.


  1. In 1998 the population of Lahore was 6.3 Million with urban 5.2 M and Rural as 1.1 M. However after 1998 whole of the district is considered as urban. Therefore its illogical to compare the urban population of Lahore in 1998 to the whole district population in 2017. Basically Lahore grew from 6.3 M in 1998 to 11.1 M in 2017 with annual growth rate of 3%.
    On the other hand the dynamics of Islamabad are that it is divided into rural and urban area by the Government. We need to first understand that all areas like DHA, Bahria and other societies in south are in theory, lie in the rural area therefore making the growth rate of 6%. Hence it is not the fault in the census itself. Its the failure of the Government these areas as urban centers.

  2. Rizwan ur Rehman: Agreed with your argument by and large. Point in the article is that this underreporting of urban population has serious repercussions since investment in cities made all over the world is based on projected urban population. Moreover, city infrastructure resources are spent to serve people and if most of the city area (which is actually urban as you rightly pointed out) declared as rural will not contribute to city govt taxes but will use all its services. As far as Lahore is concerned, its urban population has increased by 116%. Whether this change is due to definitional issue or there was more migration from other cities or something else. These questions need further investigation. Cities are engine of growth and we have to be careful for designing them as once they are designed, one can’t undo that. All this needs accurate data which is missing from census due to wrong rural-urban classification.

  3. There is lot of chaos and legal discrepancies in defining urban limits of the cities. Like in Islamabad, the whole ICT was divided into 5 Zones and urban development was prohibited in Zone-3 and 4 where as Zone-1,2 and 5 were opened for urban development. Then how Zone-2 and Zone-5 can be declared Rural. On the other hand Local Government Act 2015 also finished the rural urban divide and the entire ICT declared as Urban. Thus Islamabad City populates more than 2 million people.