Understanding Below-Replacement Fertility in Kerala, India

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INTRODUCTION

Kerala, a southwestern state in India, has caught the imagination of social scientists world over in recent times as a demographic exception or a paradox. In 2001, the state had a total population of 31.8 million, which was 3.1% of the population of India (1). During the 1950s, the population growth rate in Kerala was one of the highest in India. However, by the 1970s, it began to fall significantly and subsequently became the lowest among the Indian states. During 1981-1991, the growth rate dropped to 14.3% and in the next decade, it dropped further to 9.4% whereas the corresponding figures for India were 23.9% and 21.3% (1). By 2006, Kerala had the lowest birth rate (around 14.7 per 1,000), the lowest death rate (around 6.8 per 1,000), the lowest infant mortality (13 per 1,000 livebirths), the highest life-expectancy at birth (73 years), and the highest literacy rate (91%) in India. It attained replacement fertility level (total fertility rate=2.1) in around 1987 and is currently experiencing subreplacement fertility level. Thus, among the major states in India, Kerala has pioneered in completing the demographic transition during the last quarter of the 20th century.

The case of Kerala is rather exceptional and even puzzling due to the fact that the correlates or antecedents of the demographic transition achieved have no resemblance with that of Europe. Much of the demographic transition in the West was an integral part of a development phase during which economic growth fostered material aspirations and improvements in living conditions (2). When the fertility and mortality transitions were so rapid in Kerala during the last quarter of the 20th century, its economic growth trajectory was marked by low per-capita income and high rate of unemployment characteristically shared by many poor regions in the developing world. The state had a very weak industrial base and a stagnant agricultural sector with relatively low scope for labour absorption. In 1980-1981, Kerala was ranked eighth in terms of per-capita income among the Indian states, and its rank declined by one point in the next decade. Before 1987-1988, the economy of Kerala was characterized by near stagnation of major economic indicators. During this phase, the annual growth rate of net domestic product in Kerala was too low to cover even the population growth rate while, at the all-India level, it was 1.53% above the population growth rate (3). Nonetheless, Kerala has pioneered in achieving the highest levels of social and demographic development in India during the same period without recording corresponding economic growth. The adult literacy rate in Kerala was 90.9% in 2001 while, in India, it was only 65.4%. The rate of female literacy in Kerala was 87.9% while that in India was only 54.3% (1). Further, almost 100% of schoolage population and the youth are literate. Kerala is again unique in India with a sex ratio favouring females, i.e. male-female ratio: 0.9:1 in Kerala in 2001 and 1.1:1 in India.

With this backdrop, an attempt was made in this paper, first, to explore the plausible factors or antecedents associated with sub-replacement fertility level and consequent population momentum in Kerala, and, second, to trace their socioeconomic and health implications for the state.

MATERIALS AND METHODS

Data for the study were derived mainly from the Sample Registration System published by the census authorities in India from 1981 through 2007. Further, the author's previous work on the estimation of population momentum and age-structural transition of India, including ageing, was used. Various published materials on relevant historical factors, socioeconomic and health changes pertaining to Kerala were also used extensively.

The methodology used for the analysis included trend analysis, pattern recognition, and content analysis.

RESULTS

Fertility transition: main factors

Table 1 shows the trends in crude birth rate, total fertility rate, crude death rate, and infant mortality rate in India and Kerala in the recent past. …

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