U.N. Report: Neglecting the elders

Print edition : March 22, 2013

An elderly woman in Madurai carries waste paper to earn her livelihood. Photo: R. ASHOK

THE elderly in India number around 90 million, over 30 million of whom live alone. Over 56 per cent of those who live with their families reported being abused by their sons. By 2050, India is likely to have 315 million elderly people, who will constitute 20 per cent of the total population. The problems they face are enormous, but the institutional response has been negligible. A look at the data available, courtesy the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and HelpAge India, is an eye-opener:

  • Out of 30 million living alone, over 12 million are blind.
  • An overwhelming number reported being abused as a matter of routine.
  • Disrespect is the common form of abuse, followed by neglect and verbal abuse.
  • Of those who are abused, 69 per cent are owners of the house they were living in.
  • Over 80 per cent of those abused did not report it to anyone to uphold family honour.
  • By 2050, women over 60 years of age would exceed men by 18.4 million. The study found that among women aged over 80, six out of 10 were widows; among men aged over 80, two out of 10 were widowers. The study found that an overwhelming number of the elderly, even those above 80 years of age, were forced to work: over 39 per cent of elderly men and 11 per cent of women over 60 were forced to work.

The study was done during 2009-11 in Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal mainly because these States reported a higher percentage of the elderly than the national average. It covered 9,852 people from 8,329 rural and urban households and was done by the UNFPA in collaboration with the Population Research Centre, the Institute for Social & Economic Change, Bangalore; the Institute for Economic Growth, Delhi; and the Tata Institute for Social Sciences, Mumbai. The study found that though the government had framed a national policy for older people in 1999 and enacted the Maintenance & Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act in 2007, which ensured that children who neglect their parents could even be jailed, the mechanisms for operationalising them had not been put in place.

“The issues concerning the elderly find no priority in any government’s agenda. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment is itself suffering from morbidity. The policies and programmes remain mainly on paper,” says Mathew Cherian, chief executive, HelpAge India. In a welcome development, the Ministry is looking at reviewing the National Policy for Older People.

“Parents have abdicated their responsibility of imparting value education to children, and teachers are under pressure to find time for this. In this scenario we have to weave in the value lessons in the everyday curriculum itself,” said Kumari Selja, Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment. Besides imparting value education, she said, bringing in changes in the policies for older people could go a long way. These changes, she said, would come into effect soon.

Universalisation of social pension for the elderly, at least for those above 70 years of age, indexed to cost of living, is one option being looked at. An increase in the monthly pension from Rs.500 to Rs.1,000 is also being considered. “We can have as many laws and programmes as we want on paper, but unless we have the mechanism to ensure their implementation, it is of no use. We also need attitudinal change among the younger generation. Is it too much to ask if those who lead us, feed us, teach us, guide us today, expect us to hold their hand tomorrow, when they are no longer able to do so?” Cherian asks.

Purnima S. Tripathi

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