Caring for the aging
The elderly in India are neglected by both government and society at large.
India has a major demographic advantage over the rest of the world due to its large youth population. As per the Census 2011, the country's youth population increased from 168 million in 1971 to 422 million in 2011, translating to a corresponding increase in the share of youth in total population from 30.6 per cent to 34.8 per cent. According to a report titled 'World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables' by the Population Division at the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations, 28 per cent of India's population fell in the age group of 0-14 years, 18 per cent in the age group of 15-24 years, 45 per cent in the age group of 25-59 years and 9 per cent in the age group of 60 + years. In comparison, 18 per cent of China's population fell in the age group of 0-14 years, 12 per cent in the age group of 15-24 years, 54 per cent in the age group of 25-59 years and 16 per cent in the age group of 60+ years.
While the UN has adopted the age group of 15 to 24 years for defining youth, India's National Youth Policy, 2014, considers persons in the age group of 15-29 years as youth. The Central Statistics Office of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation estimates that the youth would have a share of 34.33 per cent in the country's total population by 2020. In 2010, the share of youth had reached 35.11 per cent. In contrast, the share of youth in China's population is projected to shrink to 27.62 per cent by 2020 from the highest share of 38.28 per cent reached in 1990. It is, therefore, quite evident that India will remain young longer than both China and Indonesia, the other country whose population determines the demographic features of Asia.
It can't be refuted that India has gained a definite edge over the rest of the world because of its large youth population. In the coming years, the country will be in a position to reap this demographic dividend in order to significantly boost economic growth and strengthen defence capabilities, thereby further enhancing the country's global standing. Hence, the current focus of the government on initiating measures and formulating policies that would lead to effective harnessing of the human resource potential of the youth is definitely justified. It is also understandable when political parties fall over each other to woo the youth segment of the population during election campaigns since its dominance and influence can very well make or break political fortunes. What is difficult to fathom though is the constant neglect of the country's elderly, not just by the government, but by the society as a whole.
Till now, the few initiatives taken by the government for the elderly such as the Integrated Programme for Older Persons, National Policy for Older Persons, 1999, the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, the National Programme for Health Care of the Elderly, Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme, and the establishment of the Senior Citizens Welfare Fund in 2016, have had very little impact on the ground, and reek of mere tokenism. The harsh reality is that the elderly today in India are more vulnerable than ever before.
The disintegration of the joint family system, lack of social support, rising financial insecurity, growing threat to personal safety and security, an environment of fear and uncertainty due to increase in abuse and exploitation of older persons, coupled with chronic diseases and poor health have made survival a challenge for many elderly people. While on one hand, the government machinery remains blatantly indifferent to the needs of the elderly, on the other, they display extreme alacrity when dealing with certain politically driven issues, many of which are inconsequential. This reflects the vote-bank politics that is at play in the country. It would seem that for most political leaders as well as policy makers the elderly have outlived their usefulness, and hence, don't matter.
The plight of the elderly in India can be very well understood from a recently released United Nations Population Fund report on ageing in India titled 'Caring for Our Elders: Early Responses'. The report quoting a 2015 Help Age India study said that half of the elderly population in the country faced some form of abuse, more in the case of women than men. It highlighted a host of challenges commonly faced by the elderly, particularly in relation to loss of spouse and living arrangements, income insecurity and compulsion to work, prevalence of morbidity, death due to chronic diseases, and declining functional abilities because of disability.
Globally, the population of people aged 60 years and above is growing faster than the general population owing to longevity and declining fertility rates. The situation is not any different in India.
According to the UNFPA report, the percentage of the elderly in the country had been increasing in recent years and the trend is likely to continue in the coming decades. The share of population over the age of 60 was projected to increase from 8 per cent in 2015 to 19 per cent in 2050, the report said, adding that the elderly would constitute nearly 34 per cent of the total population in the country by the end of the century.
Population ageing is an inevitable phenomenon and has to be faced by India, just like all other countries. It does, however, bring to the fore an important question –is the government adequately prepared with suitable policies and programmes to handle such a demographic transition? If not, there could be major socio-economic implications. As for those who treat the elderly with disdain and ignore their voices, they need to be reminded of a simple but basic fact – everyone will grow old.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)