International Desk: India has overtaken China as the most populous country in the world. But there are also places where there is a human crisis in different parts of India. Those areas have now become ghost towns due to drastic decline in fertility rates and migration of people. It is now mainly inhabited by the elderly. Kumbanad is one such city in Kerala. News BBC.
A strange situation has been going on in the schools for years in a dead town in Kerala. There is a shortage of students and teachers have to find and bring students. Students also have to spend money out of their pocket to bring them to school.
A 150-year-old school in Kumbanad had about 700 students in the late 1980s, but now that number has come down to 50. Students study in this school till the age of 14 years.
The students are mostly from poor and underprivileged families who are marginalized sections of the city. Grade Seven is the largest class with only 7 students. In 2016 there was only 1 student in the class.
Getting enough students into schools is a challenge. 8 teachers of the school spend 2800 rupees each month to transport students to and from school by auto-rickshaw or tuk-tuk. They go door to door looking for students. A few private schools in the area are also sending teachers to recruit students. Even the largest school will have over 70 students.
There was a strange solitude outside that upper primary school on a dirty afternoon. There was nothing like the hustle and bustle of studying and students in a busy school. Rather, teachers were teaching a few children in dark, quiet classrooms. A few students were seen wandering idly outside.
“What will we do? There are no children in this town. I mean, very few people live here,” Principal Jayadevi R said with annoyance. He didn’t say wrong. Kumbanad, in the heart of Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, has a shrinking and aging population. This is in a country where 47% of people are under 25 and two-thirds were born in the early 1990s when India liberalized its economy.
Kumbanad and its surrounding half-dozen villages are home to about 25,000 people. About 15% of the 11,118 houses are locked because the owners have either shifted or are living abroad with their children, said Asha CJ, the local village panchayat head. There are 20 schools, but very few students.
A hospital, a government clinic, over 30 diagnostic centers and three nursing homes point to an aging population there. There are more than two dozen banks with eight branches within half a kilometer vying for remittances sent by the city’s diaspora. About 10% of the $100 billion remittances that came to India last year went to Kerala.
Kerala and neighboring Tamil Nadu are a bit different than the rest of India. According to the last census conducted between 2001 and 2011, the population growth rate per decade was the lowest (4.9%) compared to other states. Again, a newborn in Kerala is likely to live to the age of 75, while India’s average life expectancy is 69 years.
Fertility rates have also fallen below what is needed to maintain population parity. Normally the fertility rate is 2.1 per woman to keep the population stable, but in Kerala it has been 1.7-1.9 for at least 30 years. Small families insist on educating children well. As a result, young people leave their parents at home and migrate to other parts of the country or abroad in search of better job opportunities.
“Education creates aspirations for a good job and life for children and they move on,” said KS James, a professor at the Mumbai-based International Institute for Population Sciences. “They are usually home to elderly parents, many of whom live alone.” 74-year-old Annamma Jacob has lived alone in the two-storey house inside the main metal gate for most of her memory.
Her husband, a mechanical engineer with a state-owned oil company, died in the early 1980s. His 50-year-old son has been living and working in Abu Dhabi for more than two decades. One daughter lives a few miles away, but her husband has been working as a software engineer in Dubai for three decades.
He has no neighbors next door. A daughter locked up her house and took her parents to Bahrain, where she was working as a nurse; Another moved to Dubai and rented out their place to an elderly couple.
The impression of solitude throughout the area. Surrounded by tapioca, banana and teak trees, the beautiful houses with expensive courtyards are deserted. Dry leaves are strewn on the road and cars are covered in dust. CCTV cameras have replaced guard dogs.
Unlike the chaotic and bustling cities of India, some parts of Kumbanad are actually quite secluded. The clock seems to have stopped there. The city is largely abandoned but not yet in ruins. Derelict houses are regularly painted to look like they will be visited someday. They rarely come though.
“It’s a very lonely life. My health is also not good,” said Miss Jacob. Despite heart problems and arthritis, Jacob has traveled abroad to spend time with his son and grandchildren and has been with his children to Jordan, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Israel.
A link to his world can be seen in the objects strewn around the carpeted living room: imported paracetamol tablets, pistachios and cashews, Chinese vases filled with yellow paper flowers, and bottles of foreign body wash. When asked why he built a huge house of 12 rooms to be alone, he laughed and said, “Everyone here builds huge houses.” It has to do with status.”
He spends a lot of time in his backyard farm. There he cultivated tapioca, banana, ginger, yam and jackfruit. At other times, he meditates and reads newspapers. She has a pet dog named Diana who lives in an outhouse.
“Some days, I just talk to Diana. He understands me.” Farm work is exhausting at this age and with declining health. Miss Jacob was saying that she could not afford to hire people to work on the farm. Since the number of workers is small, the wages of those who are available are very high. A day laborer charges Rs 1,000 for six hours to look after the farm. Even Miss Asha could not find people or afford to digitize the various records of the village council.
Chacko Mammen lives a few streets away. Despite suffering from heart disease and diabetes, he works four hours a day on his small farm growing bananas. The 64-year-old worked as a salesman in Oman for three decades before returning home. Back home he started a small business but had to close it after 6 years due to lack of workers. Now after many efforts he cultivates bananas in the farm and sells about 10 kg of bananas per day. “I can’t afford to hire just one worker,” he said.
Increasing the workforce in an aging society is not easy. Outsiders don’t always work either, especially when it comes to trust. As Miss Jacob does not want to take outsiders. “I’m alone, if they kill me?” He was saying.
But in this town of elderly people and closed houses, crime is rare. Police say burglaries are not easy here because people don’t keep a lot of money or valuables at home. They don’t even remember the last time they were killed.
Chief Inspector Sajish Kumar V of the local police station said, “Everything is very peaceful. We only receive fraud complaints. Elderly people are being duped by their relatives or housekeepers, who forge their signatures and withdraw their money from banks.”
A year ago, a relative of an elderly resident forged his signature and pocketed nearly Rs 1 crore. Last year, the police arrested four people from a private financial institution. They shopped and extorted money with the lure of high profits, and about 500 local depositors complained to the police.
“It was a big crime for this area,” said Mr Kumar. “Also we are mainly dealing with minor disputes between the locals – either noise, or littering outside the house, or someone’s tree branch going into the neighbour’s farm. Those kinds of things.”
Low crime means the police can look after the elderly most of the time. They inquired about 160 such lonely and sick people. For security some of their houses have been given police mobile alarms so that they can alert neighbors in case of emergency. If necessary, the police took them to the hospital or nursing home.
Old age is the only problem here, says Father Thomas John, who runs an old age home in Kumbanad. The town has 3 wheelchair accessible old age homes with open spaces, large doors and hallways. Similarly, Alexander Marthoma Memorial Geriatric Center is a nursing home in a 5-storey building with 150 beds. It serves more than 100 local people aged 85 to 101 years. According to Father Thomas John, who runs the centre, “aging is the only problem here.”
“Most of the children live abroad and have no choice but to shift their old parents to nursing homes,” he said. Nearby, another old age home called Dharmagiri houses 60 local residents who are over 60 years old.
Last year there were 31 new admissions. Separate buildings for men and women. But the waiting list keeps getting longer. Another new 30-room building will house 60 waiting veterans. “Most of the women who stay with us are victims of fraud. Some of them have been abandoned by their families,” said Father KS Mathews, who runs the ashram.
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Sick elderly, nursing homes, labor shortages, youth migration, shrinking population, resulting in a ghost town. “That’s the story of any demographic change. In the end it will be an all-India story,” said Professor James.