Demographic change may play the most important role in the future of Kerala polity. Population growth has been declining from the 1971-81 decade due to the family planning campaign. Before 1971, the state had 26.33 per cent of decadal population growth while India had only 24.72 per cent. Despite the efforts, the Indian growth rate was stagnant up to 1991 and declined to 17.64 in 2011. But Kerala, having 4.86 per cent in 2011, is heading towards a zero population growth rate. In 1971, Keralites made up 4 per cent of the Indian population; today, they have been reduced to 2.7 per cent.
History has never witnessed a faster growth rate (more than 20 per cent) than 70s and 80s had. It was a global ‘baby boom’ period. Since then, across the globe, population growth has slowed down, though the number is increasing at the rate of 12.8 per cent.
It simply means that Kerala’s population growth rate is much below the national and global growth rates. In 2031, the state’s population growth rate may be in the negative axis.
The population pyramid has also been transforming. Slowly, it will turn to a flower vase, having lower number of children and higher number of old age people. After a few decades, the middle-aged will be the larger age group compared to the old and young. It is estimated that after 2016, the working population between the 16-to-60 age group may start declining. In 2021, the number of children will also decrease.
The demographic transition is not uniform across the state. Pathanamthita (-3 per cent) and Idukki (-1.8 per cent) districts have already plunged into population decline. Malappuram has the highest rate of growth at 13.3 per cent but it has declined from 17.1 per cent in 2001. Thiruvananthpuram (2.25), Kottayam (1.32), Kollam (1.72) and Alappuzha (0.61) are below the state average.
As a society of fast demographic transition, the policymakers have to think aloud about the changes that have to happen in the near future. A society aspiring for higher education cannot afford more children in one family, unlike an agrarian society counting children as unpaid workforce in the farms. The demographic transition has already “de-peasantised” our agricultural sector. The hue and cry about the unavailability of agricultural labour is just due to the shortage of young, uneducated population. In a population declining scenario, agriculture can sustain only with high-end mechanisation in an “agripreneurial” mode. Industries also have to switch over to knowledge-intensive sectors.
The health sector may face stiffer challenges. More aged population means more complicated lifestyle diseases such as cardiac problems, cancer cases and kidney complaints. Lesser children can have better attention from teachers. But the “childless” schools cannot perform the social duty of schooling. Proper clubbing of public schools can have better education.
In an economy that has been depending upon the foreign remittances, one cannot expect the exodus mode of migration that we had in the past. Though migrants may seek better opportunities abroad, they will not be interested in the menial physical jobs from which they have already withdrawn at home. Only if the available workforce is enabled with high-end skills, can they have comparative advantage in the foreign job markets. On the other hand, Kerala labour market is flooded with migrant workers from other states. Longer working hours and lesser wages have already reduced the average wage in erstwhile militant labour sites, especially in the construction sector.
Slowly migrants may settle in Kerala and the empty classrooms in government-aided schools may be filled with their children. Already, Cotton Hill Government Primary School in Thiruvananthapuram has 10 children of parents from Uttar Pradesh. Decades ago, our children were going out with working parents, now the reverse osmosis has begun. The demographic transition will make Kerala multi-cultural not only with migrant labour but also with a mosaic of multilingual, multi-social minority groups while Malayalis spread across the globe.