Kerala has a new challenge at hand—dealing with the growing share of the elderly in its population. It is a challenge that requires the immediate attention of the state’s policymakers. While ageing populations is a global trend, Kerala’s figures stand in stark contrast to those of the rest of India. A 2021 estimate said people above 60 years of age constituted about 16.5 percent of the state’s population and the share is expected to cross 20 percent by 2031. In comparison, the same share in India’s population is just about 10 per cent. India has one of the youngest populations in an ageing world, but Kerala has one of the oldest populations in the country.
The proportion of the elderly is also indicative of the health of a community. So, Kerala is ageing faster than the rest of India mainly due to its declining fertility rate and increasing life expectancy as a result of its social welfare and healthcare policies. While Kerala’s demographic transformation points to it being a developed society, there is a flipside that is hard to ignore. With an ageing population, Kerala may not be able to fully partake of the demographic dividend the country is reaping from its large working-age population. With an increasing number of people heading abroad for higher studies and jobs, Kerala faces the threat of turning into a huge old-age home, left to fend for itself with meagre resources and inadequate policies.
The ageing population also means Kerala has to spend a significant portion of its budget on pensions. As much as 21 per cent of the state’s committed expenditure goes towards pensions. Finance minister K N Balagopal had flagged the concern, saying Kerala may become the state with the highest dependency ratio. There have been inevitable sociological changes too. Assisted living has emerged as a new growth sector, as evidenced by the mushrooming of old-age homes and demand for such facilities across the state. These changes must be addressed through adequate policies so that the elderly are not seen as a burden. The finance minister had promised steps to “scientifically study this unique situation and enable policy formulation foreseeing the future”. But we are yet to hear anything further in this regard. What Kerala needs are changes in practices and policies to address both the entitlements of the elderly—including independence, care and dignity—and the economic and sociological impact of the ageing population.