Pointers to a negative growth rate

Interview with S. Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

Published : Sep 16, 2015 12:30 IST

S. Irudaya Rajan.

S. Irudaya Rajan.

S. IRUDAYA RAJAN, Professor, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, spoke to Frontline on what the Census 2011 data on religious communities indicate about population trends in Kerala, a State that has generated a lot of interest worldwide for the remarkable progress it has made in demographic transition within a very short time and much ahead of other States in India. Excerpts from the interview:

All major communities in Kerala have experienced a decline in fertility and mortality rates during the past few decades. How do you read the Census 2011 data on religious communities in the State in that context?

There is nothing unexpected or problematic regarding the religious demographic data on Kerala. Adding the religion tag to data on fertility often distorts our thinking vis-a-vis when population trends are presented truly as the result of differences in variables such as literacy, education and other socio-economic background. In brief, the latest data on Kerala indicate that the proportion of Christians is constant; Hindus show a minor decline and Muslims show a slight increase.

Growth rates are falling among all communities, but the Muslim rate of growth is still higher than that of other communities even though the rate of increase has slowed down.

Christians of Kerala are soon likely to have a negative growth rate, and the Syrian Christians among them will be the first community in India after the Parsis to experience negative growth and a shrinking population. They will be followed by the Hindu Nairs, Ezhavas, Latin Christians and then the Muslims.

How do you compare the situation in India in general with the trends in Kerala?

What we see today in Kerala is going to be repeated eventually all over India in the next three or four decades, whatever may be the controversies that have risen in the wake of the release of the 2011 data. According to our fertility estimates based on the 2011 Census, published in Economic & Political Weekly , fertility has reached the replacement level of 2.1 children in 174 out of 621 districts in India (about 28 per cent of districts in India), and another 24 districts in the country have achieved the distinction of having below 1.5 children per woman. Only 72 districts in India (12 per cent) reported above four children per woman. Every society goes through these stages in their demographic transition, and they register high population growth rates before those rates start declining. For example, the population growth rate in Kerala was higher than India’s growth rates for several decades till the 1970s, when the decline began. In 1971, it was 26.29 per cent per annum as against India’s 24.80. The 2011 figures show Kerala’s population growth rate has declined to 4.91 against India’s 17.7. Several communities in the world have registered such trends of growth rates reaching a high before they start declining. In another 15 years, we expect all districts in Kerala, except Malappuram in north Kerala, where the demographic transition started late, to have negative population growth rates.

Are there any other interesting aspects to the negative population trends in Kerala in the past few decades?

Kerala has come to a stage where most couples want to have just one child. That is a new trend and I am not sure whether you can reverse it. In China, for instance, the government had introduced aone-child policy. But here it is happening voluntarily. I would say, today 40 per cent of couples in Kerala will probably have a single child, whereas 20 years back only 10 per cent of the couples would have had only one child. So the one-child syndrome has caught on in a big way in Kerala.

What is it with Malappuram, the 69 per cent Muslim majority district in north Kerala, that it lags behind the rest of Kerala in demographic trends?

Malabar was a region with more Muslims historically, and it became part of united Kerala only in 1956. Until then it was a neglected region in terms of social indicators of literacy and health. All through that period, Malabar, in general, remained backward, unlike the southern regions of the State such as Travancore and Cochin. That difference is still there in many other development indicators as well. But the gap is narrowing and that should be emphasised.

When I started working at CDS 30 years ago, my colleagues used to tease me by saying that demographers may not have much to do in Kerala because of the general trend of declining fertility. But Malappuram in north Kerala alone offered some ‘hope’, being considered like a district in one of the BIMARU States, were a woman having six children was the norm. Now, however, the fertility rate among Muslim women in Malappuram is 2.2, much lower than the States in north India. Such a dramatic decline has happened within a gap of just one generation in such a backward district.

But what has changed in Malappuram for such a significant decline in fertility among Muslims there within such a short time? Is it still not considered a very conservative society?

Not at all. I would say Kerala should be happy that the fertility rates are not so low in Malappuram, when the State as a whole is experiencing a negative trend. Today, 2.4 million Keralites are working outside India and the largest numbers are from Malappuram. It is not a new trend but has been the case for the last 30 years. The southern parts of Kerala had, throughout history, send its stream of migrants to other parts of India. That was not the case with the Muslims of Malappuram. But when the Gulf countries opened their doors, they started moving there in large numbers.

So there are interesting regional variations within Kerala’s general fertility-decline story.

Yes. For example, most of those early Gulf migrants from Malappuram were poor and not highly educated. Today, 2.4 million people are sending Rs.85,000 crore as remittances to Kerala (in 2015), equivalent to 36 per cent of the State Domestic Product. Most of these remittances reach homes in north Kerala, in districts such as Malappuram. Unlike Syrian Christians of the southern districts such as Pathanamthitta, a community which has shown unusually low fertility levels and from among whom the young seek to migrate permanently to North America or Europe, Muslim migrants from north Kerala send most of their money home and continue to support and maintain close links with their families. That has made a huge difference to the socio-economic and political environment in the region. The mushrooming of English-medium schools, hospitals and engineering colleges in northern Kerala, including Malappuram and Kozhikode, in the past few decades is similar to the situation in highly literate Kottayam district some 40 years back. I would say that given their initial social and economic drawbacks, the Muslims of north Kerala have done extremely well demographically, and their fertility behaviour has been remarkable. The fertility decline you see among Muslims of Malappuram today will be mirrored among those in other parts of the country a few decades from now. Remember, Muslim fertility in Kerala is lower than what it is in other parts of India, including some of the bigger States. What we need to understand is that there are no quick fixes in demography. Solutions take time, and important among them is the education of women. So there will be a time lag. We have to wait patiently.

How much has the adoption of family planning measures by the different communities in Kerala been a factor in the fertility decline in the State?

Interestingly, infertility rate is also high in the State. Infertility treatment centres are everywhere. A large number of couples prefer to have only one child. The method adopted to control fertility has varied from one community to the other. Abortion is still not an accepted option for Christians and to some extent Muslims. Among Hindus, abortion is often a choice even in the period between the birth of two children. It is not a girl child-boy child issue, but one of inability to provide proper care for two children immediately one after the other because of the crumbling joint family system. Two children is a family norm and one child is a fashion among young couples in Kerala. In addition, there are an estimated 1.1 million married women whose husbands are working abroad. This also contributes to the fertility decline in Kerala. Sterilisation has also been successful as a family planning measure in Kerala compared with other States because the majority of the deliveries happen in hospitals and medical advice too prevents women from having too many children. Religious taboos are widely ignored, it would seem; otherwise how do you explain the low fertility rates in the Syrian Christian community, for example? All said and done, education has been the key factor in bringing down fertility rates.

What has been the role of migration in deciding the population trends in Kerala? Has the experience been different for different communities?

International migration is more from among Muslims, followed by Christians and Hindus, whereas internal migration is almost absent among Muslims. Surely, the negative population growth rate is a result of such large-scale migration too. However, a large number of people are now migrating to Kerala, from States such as Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, in search of jobs, due to higher wage rates. People are coming into the State in substantial numbers as it has been happening in countries like Turkey, Germany, and now even in the U.K. Such internal migrants will eventually affect the population size in Kerala in the coming years and that is an interesting new facet in the Kerala story. They may delay the occurrence of negative growth rate.

Have you at any point of time during your studies in 30 years in the State felt that the higher growth rate among Muslims has been the result of a religious agenda?

I don’t think so. If you look at the change in fertility trends in the last 50 years, I do not think any religious leader or group or agenda has played a role in shaping it. Because fertility levels of Muslims in Kerala are lower than that of Muslims in north India. We know that a big difference exists between Syrian Christians and Muslims in terms of women’s education (according to Kerala migration survey 2014, 6 per cent Muslim women are graduates as against 16 per cent among Syrian Christians); yet when it comes to fertility rates, whereas in Syrian Christian-dominated districts of Pathanamthitta and Kottayam couples have just 1.3 children, in Malappuram women end up with 2.2 children—just a difference of a single child between Syrian Christians and Muslims and not six as it used to be only a generation earlier. Is it not remarkable? I feel this trend is going to be replicated throughout India. Globally, today, Christians have the lowest fertility, in spite of what their religion teaches them. There are other influencing variables stronger than religion that guide fertility transition. We should concentrate on those factors.

As a demographer, what do you foresee would be the result of Kerala’s final-stage demographic transition (marked by low fertility and mortality rates) on its major religious denominations?

There will be more old persons than young ones in all communities in Kerala. Such a phenomenon is going to become most visible first in the Syrian Christian community, followed by Hindu Nairs, Hindu Ezhavas, Latin Christians and finally Muslims. The emerging situation will be the worst for Syrian Christians because the role of education in bringing down growth rates is perhaps most evident within this community. Their young are migrating on a large scale to countries like the U.K., Canada and the U.S. and Australia, where they seek permanent citizenship. They leave their parents back home.

On the other hand, communities such as Muslims, Ezhavas and Nairs go largely to the Gulf countries, where they do not have any permanent interest and continue to maintain links with their relatives, especially aged parents. The problems of the aged and the care economy is going to be very important for Kerala in the coming years. Unfortunately, the State is not trying to prepare for such problems that come with final-stage demographic transition.

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