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What Kerala Can Teach India & China About Population Policy

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Learn what Kerala can teach the rest of India.

Learn what Kerala can teach the rest of India.

Kerala's Progress in Human Development

Kerala, a tiny southern state of India, has drawn both international and national attention due to its impressive performance in social development and demographic transition. Its human development indicators are the best in India and compare with those of some developed countries. Its achievement of demographic transition is rather unique and has earned worldwide accolades. Its population development model is ideal for developing countries that are struggling with issues of population and poverty.

Kerala amazes Western demographers because it achieved demographic transition despite poor economic development. This is not surprising because, for a Western mind, everything must correlate with economic development.

What Is the Development Model of Kerala?

The answer is simple: Kerala focused on its people and improving their quality of life. It was a human development model. This is totally opposite from what the West thinks and prescribes: putting economic growth at the center stage and making people subordinate to it. This is flawed, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has often emphasized—we should put people at the center of development and change social and political processes according to what they need. The economy will follow.

In fact, people need many more things other than economic growth, such as freedom to participate in social and political activities, opportunity for spiritual growth, family life and relations, easy access to social support systems and quality health services, freedom from all forms of insecurities, clean environment, and sufficient leisure time.

A Women-Friendly State

Perhaps Kerala's most distinguishing feature is its female/male sex ratio: According to the 2011 census, Kerala has 1,084 females (up by 26 since 2001) for every 1,000 males, against the national average of 940. In the past hundred years, this has steadily improved. Even the most economically advanced states—like Delhi, Punjab, Gujarat and Maharashtra—don’t match Kerala in female-friendliness and women's empowerment.

In the past decade, all districts of Kerala have shown an improvement in sex ratio. As per the 2011 data, the top three districts are Kannur (1,133), Pathanamthitta (1,129) and Kollam (1,113), and even the worst districts have better figures: Idukki (1,006), Ernakulam (1,028), and Wayanad (1,035).

Kerala also tops the literacy rate at 94%, on average (male literacy is at 96%, and female literacy is at 92%). The national average is 74% literacy (male 82%, female 65.5%).

Kerala has a long tradition of women's empowerment. The Maharaja of Travancore established the first girl's school in the 1850s. His example was taken up by neighboring kingdoms, such as Cochin.

Kerala is a female surplus state!

Kerala is a female surplus state!

Female-to-Male Ratio in India and Kerala (Comparison)



































The Demographics of Kerala

The state of Kerala is wedged between the Arabian Sea to the west and the Western Ghats to the east. It covers only 1.18% of India's landmass. Situated at the southwestern tip of India, it is bordered by Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Kerala's coast runs 580 km in length, while the state itself varies from 35–120 km in width. Kerala is one of the most popular destinations for nature-loving tourists from across the world.

In the 2011 census, the population density of Kerala was 860 people/km2, up from 819 in 2001, next to only Bihar (1106 people/km2, up from 881) and West Bengal (1028 people/km2, up from 903). The national average was 382 people/km2, up from 324 ten years ago. Within the state, the district of Thiruvananthapuram had the highest population density, with 1,508 people/km2, while Idukki had the lowest population density with 255 people/km2. The high population density has played a major role in improving access to social services like schools and hospitals, which has led to improved development indicators.

A steadily aging population (with 13% of the population consisting of people over the age of 60, compared with just 8.2% in the rest of the country) and low birthrate make Kerala one of the few regions of the developing world to have undergone a demographic transition. It is the highest among the major states of India. The district with the highest percent of elderly population is Alappuzha.

Children in the 0–6 age group are just about 10% of the population, and under-14 year olds are less than 25% of the total population—the lowest among the major states of India. The dropping number of children is endangering primary schools. More and more schools are becoming uneconomical every year in Kerala. The school drop out rate is the state is less than 0.5%, the lowest in the country.

Kerala has the highest literacy rate (94%) and life expectancy in India (75.8 years, compared national average of 65.5 years). Its fertility rate, at around 1.7, is below the replacement level, and the infant mortality rate, at only around 10 deaths per 1,000 live births, is among the best in the country.

Over the past century, Kerala's population increased by over five times from 6 million in 1901 to 33.4 million in 2011. Currently, it is the 12th most populous state, with slightly less than 3 percent population share. Its population compares with those of Canada and Iraq, but it is somewhat larger than the populations of Afghanistan, Nepal, and Malaysia.

There has been a 5% fall in population growth rate in every census since 1971. The decadal population growth rate was 25% in 1971, reduced to 20% in 1981, 9.4% in 2001, and stood at 4.9% in 2011. If this trend continues, the growth rate in 2021 will be either zero or negative.

The birth rate amongst all communities has been declining as well. At present, it is around 1.2 among Christians, 1.4 among Hindus, and 2.1 among Muslims. The difference in the birth rate among the different communities shows up in the overall state population composition. Christians were about 18% of the population in 2018, down from 19.5% in 2001, and the Muslim community reached 26% The Hindu community was around 54%.

Women constitute 51.9% of the total population of the state and outnumber men by 1.3 million. Here, women outlive men.

Comparing Kerala’s female literacy with the rest of India

Comparing Kerala’s female literacy with the rest of India

Kerala has the lowest infant mortality rate in India.

Kerala has the lowest infant mortality rate in India.

Demographic Transition

A country’s population remains stable when the birth and death rates match. Demographic transition is the shift from a stable population with high birth/high death rates to a stable population with low birth/low death rates. A society with high birth/death rates is clearly underdeveloped. When it advances in healthcare, education, sanitation and nutritional facilities, both birth and death rates fall because people realize the importance of smaller families and family planning, and elderly people enjoy better health and live longer.

Western societies achieved this transition long ago due to technological and economic advancements. Developing nations are now moving towards it and are at different stages of demographic transition. Countries take more or less time depending upon their policies and strategies. The age structure of the population also changes during such transitions.

Demographic Transition in Kerala

In India, the demographic transition has been relatively slow but steady. As a result, India has been able to avoid the adverse effects of overly rapid changes in the number and age structure of the population, as is seen in China, which abruptly reduced population by imposing the one-child policy.

Kerala has been setting an example of the potential of human development over the last several decades. This beautiful tiny state has emerged far ahead in human development indicators, leaving behind even economically advanced states like Gujarat and Maharashtra. It also has the lowest rate of population growth, achieved without coercive sterilization policies of the family planning ministry. Kerala has the lowest crude death rate (around 6 per thousand), lowest infant mortality (around 10 per 1000 live births), highest life expectancy at birth (75 years) and highest literacy rate (94%).

Kerala attained a replacement level fertility rate, or total fertility rate of 2.1, during early 1990s. Other states which achieved this feat in the following years are Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Maharashtra and Punjab.

What Is Total Fertility Rate?

The total fertility rate (TFR) is the average total number of children a woman will have her lifetime. Associated with total fertility rate is the concept of replacement rate, which is achieved when, on an average, every woman gives birth to just one female child in her lifetime. In order to do that, she would birth to just two children so that statistically one would be a girl. These leads to population stabilization—zero population growth.

To account for the mortality of women before they produce offspring, the replacement level fertility is kept slightly above 2.0. In developed countries where healthcare facilities are good, the TFR is at 2.1. In societies where child or adult death rates are higher, the replacement rate is at around 2.3.

Currently, China’s TFR is 1.70 (similar to Kerala) and India’s about 2.7. China reached the replacement fertility level around the year 2000; it is expecting to see population stabilization by 2030. Population stabilization takes place about 30–35 years after the replacement fertility has been reached; until then, the population continues to grow due to momentum. In 2020, India’s TFR is at 2.2.

To put things in perspective, here are some nations with a high TFR: Niger (7.03), Mali (6.25), Somalia (6.17), Uganda (6.06), Zambia (5,81), and Afghanistan (5.54). Some countries with a low TFR include: Singapore (0.79), Taiwan (1.11), South Korea (1.24), and Japan (1.39). The EU as a whole is at 1.58 and the US is at 1.73. The world average TFR is around 2.42, down from 2.8 in 2002 and 5.0 in 1965.

The Demographic Transition Model

The Demographic Transition Model

Power of People Development

It is noteworthy that Kerala achieved this kind of development despite sluggish economic growth because normally economic growth has been known to curtail population growth. Sociologists attribute these achievements to Kerala’s better healthcare, high literacy rate, and better standard of living compared to other Indian states. Kerala's human development indices—elimination of poverty, primary education, and healthcare—are among the best in India.

Kerala's healthcare system has garnered international acclaim, with UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) designating Kerala the world's first "baby-friendly state". For example, more than 95% births in Kerala are hospital-delivered. The state also nurtures several traditional forms of medical practices. Apart from Ayurveda, Siddha, and Unani, many endangered and endemic modes of traditional medicine, including kalari, marmachikitsa, and vishavaidyam, are practiced in Kerala.

Experts tried to figure out which socio-cultural or developmental factors significantly contributed towards Kerala’s demographic transition. People often point to the high literacy rate as the most dominant factor leading towards lower fertility. Noted scholar D. Radha Devi examined the correlation between education and fertility and compared the fertility parameters of Kerala and Madhya Pradesh. She wondered why the fertility rate is fairly high even among women graduates in Madhya Pradesh and fairly low even among illiterates of Kerala. She concluded that the spread of formal education among women can’t bring about a drastic change in their reproductive behavior by itself.

Another researcher, KC Zachariah, argued that in case of Kerala, the high population density and the rather homogeneous spread of population (without the drastic village-city divide) helped develop an infrastructure of schools and healthcare facilities in such a way that they were easily accessible to the whole population. In Kerala, 95% population has been living in such settlement pattern. This pattern eliminates the lopsided development found in other states, where facilities get concentrated in or around cities and rural areas are left behind and don't have easy access.

The lack of gender bias in Kerala should also be given credit. When women are free of male dominance, they are in a better position to control their fertility. This empowerment must get as much credit as other facilities and family planning programs.

The population pyramid of Kerala is distinctly different.

The population pyramid of Kerala is distinctly different.

Praise for Kerala

The case of Kerala is unique because the demographic transition was achieved despite not having a high-level economic development as prescribed in the theory of demographic transition and observed in the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kerala’s human development model of fertility transition appears better suited to developing countries that are struggling with poverty and population stabilization issues.

Noted author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, described as "the world's best green journalist" by Time magazine, summarized Kerala's unusual socioeconomic and demographic situation in these words:

Kerala, a state in India, is a bizarre anomaly among developing nations, a place that offers real hope for the future of the Third World. Though not much larger than Maryland, Kerala has a population as big as California's and a per capita annual income of less than $300. But its infant mortality rate is very low, its literacy rate among the highest on Earth, and its birthrate below America's and falling faster. Kerala's residents live nearly as long as Americans or Europeans. Though mostly a land of paddy-covered plains, statistically Kerala stands out as the Mount Everest of social development; there's truly no place like it.

What Can Kerala Teach Other Developing Nations?

That human development and women's empowerment are the best contraceptives in the world!

Kerala demonstrated that demographic transition and subsequent population stabilization can also be achieved through human development. It proved many Western thinkers, who believed that economic development alone can bring about demographic transition as they had observed in their countries, wrong.

It also highlighted that imposing a smaller family size, as China did, is NOT at all required to reduce population growth. Kerala also highlights the role of gender equality and women's empowerment. Gender prejudice against women, combined with coercive state policies such as the one child policy, led to a highly disturbing sex ratio that creates several serious social issues. China already has a surplus of over 30 million men under the age of 20 and adds about one million “extra" male children each year. This scenario could create serious consequences in the future. Kerala avoided all such side-effects.

The Indian government should learn from Kerala and shift the focus of family planning efforts to sociocultural issues like raising the legal age of marriage, investing in women's education, gender equality and women's empowerment. Incidentally, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's capability approach to development also focuses on human development as the most sustainable growth model.


This article is inspired by a one-day roundtable held in New Delhi (January 2011) on “Population and family Planning: Contemporary Challenges & Opportunities”, organized by the National Coalition on Population Stabilization, Family Planning & Reproductive Rights.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.