The population situation in Kerala is a fascinating area of study, says Dr. P.S. Nair, Professor and Head of the Department of Population Studies in the University of Botswana

There are several billion reasons why each of us should be interested in the observation of the annual World Population Day (July 11). Kerala occupies a special place in demographic studies in India on account of it being the most densely populated state in India and also the state with the lowest fertility rates.

P.S. Nair, Professor and Head of the Department of Population Studies in the University of Botswana and the former head of the Department of Demography of the University of Kerala, says the population situation in Kerala is a fascinating area of study for social scientists and policy makers on account of its unique demographic aspects. Since the theme of this year’s World Population Day is Universal Access to Reproductive Health, which is also one of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals, Dr. Nair focusses on the State’s fertility rates and its impact on the socio-economic and health scenario of the State.

Although the State has the lowest fertility rates in the country and has achieved enviable success in reproductive health, the population has not stopped growing, albeit it is at a slower rate of growth. As a result, the density of population (that is the number of people per square km) continues to increase and the population growth has not stabilised. Right now it is 860 persons per square km, much more than the all-India average. But Dr. Nair estimates that by 2021, it would be around 1,000, about three times the all-India figure.

He says that though the rate of population growth has slowed down in Kerala, on account of the previous high rates of growth, we are still to achieve stability in our growth rates. So our population continues to grow. “We call this the population momentum. Like a speeding vehicle travels a certain distance even after the brakes are applied, a decline in birth rate by itself will not immediately stop the growth in population,” he explains. We have to wait for at least two decades more to achieve ‘zero population growth’.

“Unfortunately, not many of our planning mandarins factor this into our development plans for infrastructure. As a result, our infrastructure is reaching breaking point,” he adds.

He points to the removal of solid waste as an example. “Although I have lived in several cities in India and abroad, I have never seen a similar situation anywhere in the world. As a result of our topography and the monsoon, this problem (the difficulty in finding a solution to the removal of solid waste) is bound to make our land the breeding place of all kinds of dangerous communicable diseases,” he explains. He says this infrastructure overload, partly due to the growing population, is evident in the health system, transport system and in almost every other sector in society.

Another feature that is now seen widely in Kerala is the impact of age structural transition. That is the presence of a greying population vis-à-vis the earning population in Kerala. He says, in India, the largest proportion of people above the age of 60 is in Kerala; of which females outnumber males. “Thus, sooner than later, the State would have to explore ways to ensure their security, health and so on. A health insurance, at least for the economically disadvantaged, may become mandatory,” he adds.

Dr. Nair says that as the population clock ticks, adding more mouths to feed and care for, it is high time we plan for the future taking into account the changes in our population profile. He points out that demography is treated as a policy science globally and population variables are integrated into development planning.

Pioneering effort

The Department of Demography of the University of Kerala, arguably the first such unit in India devoted to various aspects of demography and population studies, observed the day with various programmes. “Initially, in the early sixties, it began under the Department of Statistics (Department of Statistics and Demography). In 1979 the Department of Demography was established,” explains Mohanachandran Nair, the present head of the Department of Demography at Karyavattom.

“We had a seminar and discussion on various aspects of population studies. Moreover post-graduate students of the department participate in an outreach programme that help them apply theories to real-life situations. Every year, they focus on a ward of a panchayat and do an in-depth study of the demographic, socio-economic and health profile of the place. The report of that study is published on July 11,” adds Mohanachandran Nair. This time around, the post-graduate students of the department have conducted their study in Kazhakuttom, which is now a division of the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation.

In addition to felicitating academic winners, staff members and so on, Dr. Nair delivered a talk on the subject on the reproductive health scene in Kerala.

Holistic approach

Till 1994, many densely populated countries attempted (sometimes through coercive methods) to reduce the birth rates. But in 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, the goal shifted to a more holistic one of reproductive health, which covers family planning, maternal and child health, adolescent sexual health and so on. The ICPD has come up with a framework to achieve this and also evaluate the progress made by countries in this area on a regular basis.