During the early nineteenth century, the population of Sri Lanka was small and concentrated in the southwestern part of the island and in the Jaffna Peninsula in the north. The first official census, conducted by the British in 1871, recorded a total population of 2.8 million. Between then and the 1980s, the population increased sixfold. Population growth until around 1900 was given impetus by considerable immigration from southern India, as the British brought in hundreds of thousands of Tamils to work the plantation economy. These immigrants accounted for an estimated 40 to 70 percent of the population increase during the nineteenth century. Another significant factor in the growth of population after 1900 was a decline in mortality rates. The period of fastest growth was the decade after independence, when the annual rate of increase was 2.8 percent. The official total in the 1981 census was 14,846,750, and some projections suggested a total of 18 million by 1991 and between 20 and 21 million by 2001. Furthermore, if the 1980s trends continue, the population will double in forty years.
Although the increase in the number of people remained a major problem for Sri Lanka, there were indications in the 1980s that the country had moved beyond a period of uncontrolled population expansion into a pattern similar to that of more industrialized nations. The crude fertility rate declined from 5.3 in 1953--at the height of the postindependence baby boom--to 3.3 in 1981. Emigration, which outpaced immigration after 1953, also contributed to the decline in population growth. Between 1971 and 1981, for example, 313,000 Tamil workers from the plantation areas emigrated to south India. Increased employment opportunities in the Arab nations also attracted a substantial annual flow of workers from Sri Lanka (a total of 57,000 in 1981 alone). The lowering of the population growth rate was accompanied by changes in the age distribution, with the older age-groups increasing, and by the concentration of people in urban areas. Those phenomena also accompanied lower population growth in Europe and the United States.
Population is not uniformly spread but is concentrated within the wet zone and urban centers on the coast and the Jaffna Peninsula. The country's mean population density--based on 1981 census data--was 230 persons per square kilometer, but in Colombo District density was 2,605 persons per square kilometer. In contrast, the dry zone districts of Vavuniya, Mannar, Mullaittivu, and Moneragala had fewer than fifty-five persons per square kilometer. One reason for the unequal settlement pattern was the rainfall distribution, which made it possible for the wet zones to support larger village farming populations. Another reason was the slow but steady concentration of people in urban centers during the twentieth century. The ratio of Sri Lankans living in cities increased from 11 percent in 1871 to 15 percent in 1946 and 21.5 percent in 1981.
By 1985 a slowly declining crude birth rate hinted at a gradual aging of the population and changed requirements for social services. For the time being, however, there was considerable pressure for jobs, education, and welfare facilities from the large number of people who were raising families or pursuing careers. In the remaining decades of the century and beyond there was likely to be greater pressure for housing and health care for an aging population.
Urbanization has affected almost every area of the country since independence. Local market centers have grown into towns, and retail or service stores have cropped up even in small agricultural villages. The greatest growth in urban population, however, has occurred around a few large centers. In 1981 the urbanized population was 32.2 percent in Trincomalee District and 32.6 percent in Jaffna District, in contrast to the rural Moneragala District where only 2.2 percent of the people lived in towns. Colombo District, with 74.4 percent urban population, experienced the largest changes. Between 1881 and 1981, the city of Colombo increased its size from 25 to 37 square kilometers and its population from 110,502 to 587,647.
Since independence was granted in 1948, there have been four main trends in migration. First, every year more people move from rural areas to the cities. Second, the cities have changed from concentrated centers to sprawling suburbs. During the 1970s, the city of Colombo actually lost population, mostly to neighboring cities in Colombo District. Part of the suburban growth has resulted from a planned strategy to reduce urban congestion. For example, a new parliamentary complex opened in Sri Jayewardenepura in the suburb of Kotte east of Colombo in 1982 (although Colombo is still considered the national capital). Much of the growth, however, has been the unplanned proliferation of slums inhabited by poor and unskilled masses and lacking public utilities or services. Third, government irrigation projects attracted many farmers from the wet zone to the pioneer settlements in the dry zone. During the decade ending in 1981, the highest rates of population increase occurred in the districts of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, where the Mahaweli Garga Program attracted immigrant farmers. Fourth, SinhaleseTamil ethnic struggles displaced many people during the 1970s and 1980s. During a Tamil repatriation program in the 1970s, large numbers of Tamil plantation workers left for India or moved out of the hill areas toward the north and the east. After the intensification of communal fighting in 1983, an estimated 100,000 Tamil refugees fled to India, where they lived in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu State, and thousands more were relocated through refugee agencies in Sri Lanka. During the counterinsurgency operations of the Sri Lankan and Indian armies in 1987 and 1988, many residents of the Jaffna Peninsula fled their homes for temporary shelter in refugee camps.
As in South Asia as a whole--and in contrast to global patterns--Sri Lankan males outnumbered females in the mid-1980s. In Sri Lanka, for every 100 female births registered there were 104 males. In the past, the gender ratio of the general population was even more unequal--113 men to 100 women in 1941. In part, this imbalance is attributed to the emigration of plantation workers, many of whom were men. Much of the change, however, may be due to a growing sensitivity to the health of women. Since 1963, the average female life expectancy has increased by seven years, while male life expectancy has risen by three years.
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