They are all around us. When the car stops, if it stops, at the red light, they stand next to the car, asking for a few rupees to feed themselves. Rags on their body, without a shoe on their feet, they knock on the tinted window, only for the passenger to look elsewhere. When the car parks in front of the department store with goods from far off lands, and prices marked up beyond reason, they appear, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups, asking for something, anything at all. No one knows who they are, or where they come from, whether they have a home or not, and if they even have a name. Our indifference to their presence means that we do not care if they are there, sent by a mafia that feeds on poverty, or sent by a hunger that creates misery. Visible to us all, they are the invisible ones.
I have high hopes from the census, which I think is one of the best pieces of news coming from Pakistan in a long time. I know that I should keep my expectations low, and then be happy when the low expectations are met, but I cannot contain my excitement about data that may help us understand how many of us inhabit the country, and how we all make the tapestry of the society. My excitement about basing policy on real data is palpable. But my excitement is more than just about the data. My hope from this counting exercise is that this data will not just count me and you, those who can write in an English daily and can read it on their tablet, but also the invisible ones. My dream is that the census will also count how many do not have an address because they live by the side of the road whose name they do not know. Whether they are there because their parents sent them to beg and ask for a meal, or because they are left behind by the cruelty of society, or because they were born in the wrong city at the wrong time, I really want the census to count them just as it would count those who have the pedigree that we all envy. My hope is that the census will not just be an exercise in counting but a collective desire to live in a country where the invisible will become visible.
Back in the day, there was a myth that meant that those in the urban areas had access, and those in the rural areas were inherently without access to clean water, health and education. A drive through our urban centres, from the North to the South, will shatter that myth. Some of the poorest people in the country live in urban areas, sometimes just around the corner from the richest, sometimes right across the road from the mansions. They do not have access to any services, facilities or rights, and their right to live itself is questionable in the eyes of society. As we start to count and take stock of how many of us are there, I hope that this will allow us to really recognise who we truly are as a people and how we ought to be.
There is indeed much to celebrate in the 2017 census, something that was long overdue. Yet, I cannot help but remind us that the real value is not in the data or just in the numbers, but in what the data helps us do. I hope the census of 2017 will help answer the question Ibn Insha asked decades ago “Yeh bacha kis ka bacha hai? “ (whose kid is this?).
A nation indivisible cannot have people amongst it who are invisible.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2017.2017-03-20