India's ageing crisis
Senior citizens in India live a life of neglect as government policies provide meagre social security and families show little concern
It may appear odd that India's nearly 150-million 60-plus-year old population, generally politically active though not always quite vocal, is among the country's most neglected section – both by the society and the government. There is no worthwhile social security for the aged. A small section lives on their income from savings, a large part of which is routinely spent on doctors and medicines that come under no insurance coverage. A still smaller section tries to live on their pensions. They are mostly retired public servants and teachers. Industrial pensions are small and generally fixed. The minimum pension for a retired industrial worker, fixed by the government, is farcically low at only Rs 1,000 per month. The census analysis puts the life expectancy, for those above 60 years, of an average remaining length of about 18 years (16.9 years for males and 19.0 for females) and for those at 70, at less than 12 years (10.9 years for males and 12.3 for females). Crimes against the old, often by their next-of-kins, and others, including servants, thieves and tenants, are continuously rising, primarily because of the widespread social neglect.
For the self-supporting old, living on pensions or interest incomes on savings or rental income, the government's taxation department treats them more shabbily than other assesses. Until the age of 80, they are forced to pay the same rates of taxes on their income as others, offering little relief to their rising medical bills and other age-related burdens. For instance, a chronic old-aged diabetic may be spending Rs 10,000 or more per month on medicines, insulin injections, daily blood sugar measures and routine quarterly tests, including retinopathy, neuropathy, nephropathy and cardiac conditions that attract no deduction in his or her tax computation. Considering the fact that life expectancy at the age of 70 is less than 12 years, the government should have entirely spared this category from individual income tax or reduce them substantially at a flat rate of 5 per cent at source. Adequate social security benefits could have been offered to those issueless or having no support from others. The constitutional 'right to live' becomes meaningless for the old in the absence of societal and government care and compassion. Surprisingly, few in the government and political life have ever assessed the value of goodwill from the old, who rarely miss an election as they have nothing more worthwhile to perform in the management of their state and country. Few have assessed what the old think of the elections and candidates and how they can possibly influence the mind of younger ones.
It may be interesting that the older section is increasingly becoming a strong new block in the country's electoral system – from Panchayats to the Parliament. The number is steadily growing as also is their disenchantment with the governmental system that tends to consider them as a useless, spent force. A report released by the UN Population Fund and HelpAge India suggests that the number of elderly persons is expected to grow to 173 million by 2026. Both the share and size of the elderly population is increasing over time. From 5.6 per cent of the population in 1961, the proportion of the old had increased to 8.6 per cent in 2011. It was 8.2 per cent for males and 9 per cent for females. About 71 per cent of the elderly population lived in rural areas while 29 per cent resided in urban areas. Kerala showed the highest life expectancy at birth, followed by Maharashtra and Punjab, as per the SRS Report, 2009-13. The most interesting aspect of the report is that it mentions a high literacy rate among the elderly people in India. From the sociopolitical angle, this deserves to be particularly noted in the context that the average adult illiteracy rate in India is as high as 15 per cent. The literates among elderly persons increased from 27 per cent in 1991 to 44 per cent in 2011. The literacy rate among elderly females is less than half of the literacy rate among elderly males. The literacy rate is expected to surpass 60 per cent post-2021 Census.
The officialdom may not know that not a large section of the country's elderly population is even aware that there exists a full-fledged department in the government called the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. The department is hardly in the news for its effort to ensure equitable treatment to such sections of society which have suffered social inequalities, exploitation, discrimination and injustice. On paper, the ministry has a Social Defence Division which is supposed to cater mainly to the requirements of 'Senior Citizens', besides victims of alcoholism and substance abuse, transgender persons and beggars/destitute. What a combination of job descriptions for one division! The ministry is supposed to develop and implement acts, policies and programmes for the welfare of senior citizens in collaboration with state governments and union territory administrations to "ensure that senior citizens may lead a secured, dignified and productive life." Few in the government care what the ministry does in practice. The country's growing elderly population continues to be among the most neglected and exploited. The Ministry of Statistics said that the number of citizens over the age of 60 jumped 35.5 per cent between the 2001 and 2011 censuses. This is almost twice the rate at which the overall population grew (17.7 per cent) in the same period. "The trend clearly reveals that ageing will emerge as a major social challenge in the future," warned the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. Population ageing may be a global phenomenon, but nowhere in well-governed countries do the elderly face such social and government neglect and exploitation as in India. There is little effort from the government to improve their hapless life and living conditions by providing at least an assured income for them to support themselves for their healthcare and other dire necessities. They also deserve a social role and recognition, and opportunities for creative and effective use of free time.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)