Shades of grey
in Thiruvananthapuram, Front line
|Kerala faces difficult and politically inconvenient policy choices on issues linked to its final-stage demographic transition.|
AN ELDERLY WOMAN with her grandson. In Kerala, the continuous decline in the number of births has been accompanied, among other things, by a rapid increase in the number of the elderly.
IF population trends and hesitant statements by State Ministers are a clue, Kerala is set to face difficult and politically inconvenient policy choices in the near future on issues linked to its final-stage demographic transition, marked by low fertility and mortality rates.
Signs of new dilemmas are already evident in the State. It has one of the lowest population growth rates in India. Its fertility and mortality rates have fallen to very low levels. An average Keralite would live beyond 70 years. All this is leading to a situation making Kerala a State with a speedily ageing population.
At an international seminar on “Emerging Fertility Patterns in India: Causes and Implications” organised recently by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Thiruvananthapuram, participants were calling attention to the “profound demographic transformation” taking place, indeed, all over the world. As a result, more than half the world’s population is now living in countries or regions where birth rates are “at or below the level needed to ensure the replacement of generations” (or 2.1 children per woman, a number known as the “replacement rate of fertility”, which denotes a stable population).
“Nearly one-third of India is witnessing a trend of below replacement level of fertility today [see box]. Our estimate is that by 2021, two-thirds of the districts in India will have below replacement level of fertility,” S. Irudaya Rajan, a professor at the CDS who has been studying demographic and migration issues in Kerala for over two decades, told Frontline.
Within Kerala, one of the first States to reach an advanced stage in demographic transition, the continuous decline in the number of births has been accompanied, among other things, by an increase in the proportion of the working population, the highest unemployment rate among educated youth in India and problems associated with their migration in large numbers in search of job opportunities, and a rapid increase in the number of the elderly within the State.
From the mid-1990s, questions were being raised on the economic implications of low fertility and mortality and on how the development achievements of the State could be sustained in the wake of such population trends and in an environment of poor economic growth. Researchers have been saying that the socio-economic implications of the reversal of demographic trends would be far-reaching in a State like Kerala.
A collection of research papers from the CDS titled “Kerala’s Demographic Future: Issues and Policy Options” released at the seminar foresees, among other things, “significant changes in the age structure” in Kerala, including “a decrease in school age population, decrease in proportion of the labour force in about two decades from 2001, decline in young working age population, a doubling of older working age population in two decades ending in 2021 and more unemployment among the older age groups than among the youth in the foreseeable future”.
Unique ageing scenario
A paper on the unique ageing scenario in Kerala estimates that the size of the population in the age group of 60 years and above in the State is expected to increase from 33 lakh in 2001 to 57 lakh in 2021 and to 120 lakh in 2061. By 2061, the proportion of the elderly would constitute 40 per cent of Kerala’s total population. Of this, 6.7 per cent would be in the age group 60-69 years; 23.8 per cent in the age group 70-79 years; and 9.1 per cent in the age group of 80 years and above.
Another study by the State Planning Board, published in 2009 as part of a United Nations Development Programme-Planning Commission project, also makes similar projections, that the number of elderly persons (60+) is set to increase from 3.62 million in 2001 to 8.93 million by 2051, an increase of 166 per cent. The study estimates that the growth rate among the elderly will be the highest during 2011-21 and will decline thereafter to a low of 7.5 per cent during 2041-51.
AN ELDERLY MAN returning home after a day’s work in an agricultural field near Thrissur. The proportion of households in the State that do not have aged persons has been decreasing.
The CDS studies report that the cost of “dependency burden” of Kerala households will also rise quite rapidly in the future. While the young dependency ratio (defined as the number of persons aged 0-14 per 100 persons in the working age group of 15-59 years) is expected to decline from 41 to 16, the aged dependency ratio (the number of persons above 60 years of age per 100 persons in the working age group of 15 to 59 years) is to increase from 17 to 76 during the period from 2001 to 2061.
Kerala would also have more women than men in the old-age group; also, more aged widows than aged widowers. The proportion of households that do not have aged persons has also been decreasing. Among Kerala’s 14 districts, there are variations in the proportion of the elderly to the total population, with the highest percentage of elderly population (21 per cent) found in Pathanamthitta, followed by Alappuzha, Kottayam, Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram.
The older working age population in the State is estimated to double in number in the 20 years from 2001 to 2021, “creating an atmosphere of unemployment more among the older age groups than among the youth in the foreseeable future”.
However, unemployment among Kerala’s young working age population is set to decline in the coming decades, and “educated young workers will be able to virtually pick and choose the jobs they want”, according to the editors of the collection, Irudaya Rajan and K.C. Zachariah, an honorary professor at CDS. They also believe that the reversal of the demographic trends will ease the pressure on Kerala’s education and health care systems and offer opportunities for quality improvement of such services.
It is well known that migration from Kerala to other States in India and abroad had been one of the means by which the State coped with the ill effects of rapid demographic transition in the last 50 years and which helped it realise its human development achievements. Questions are raised on whether migration will continue at such high rates in the future too and contribute to the well-being of Kerala’s economy. Meanwhile, the State is also seeing a new trend of “replacement migration”, an increasing flow of migrant labourers from other States into Kerala.
The authors say that Kerala is now experiencing the secondary effects of migration of its people during the past decades, which are not so beneficial as the primary effects were. They include (a) the creation of educated youth unwilling to take up low-paid or unskilled jobs, and thus leading to a high unemployment rate; (b) the inflow of migrant workers from other States who are willing to accept low wages and poor working conditions and thus make a significant impact on unemployment and wage rates within, and “nullifying some of the potentially positive spin-off effects of emigration”; (c) the divisions caused by the “increasing economic and political clout of the newly rich emigrants”; and (d) rising resentment in Kerala society as a result of unequal opportunities in the emerging migration market.
The recent phenomenon of “replacement migration” is a result of a rapid decline in the number of workers in the young working ages caused by fertility decline to below replacement level, emigration of a large number of young persons to the Gulf and other destinations, and economic improvement in the State economy “which have fostered an aversion to low-paid and unskilled jobs on the part of the youth in the State”.
As a result, “the potential spin-off effects of remittances on employment are benefiting workers outside Kerala more than workers within Kerala”, with much of its remittances being drained off to other States, according to Irudaya Rajan and Zachariah.
C. RATHEESH KUMAR
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