They just….de-weed fields, thread garlands, pull rickshaws, care for children, deliver milk packets and work on construction sites among many other things. Yet when asked they say: “We don’t work.” In the background of the ongoing Pension Parishad agitation in Jantar Mantar here, meet elderly men and women (through photographs) as they work close to 12 hours a day to garner a sizeable security net to live off.

The 45 pictures on the 20 white panels detail the lives of the aged: from 68-year-old Jayalakshmi who cleans computers in an IT firm to an elderly gentleman who transports children to school in his cycle-rickshaw. Though the majority of the photographs chronicle the lives of the elderly in Chennai and from States such as Rajasthan and Maharashtra, they reflect stories from across the country.

The photographs were taken as part of an ongoing study “revealing the extraordinary range of paid and unpaid work that elders do,” says British anthropologist and one of the authors of the study, Penny Vera-Sanso. “The story line is a little jumbled but we have tried to organise it category-wise,” she says as she takes this reporter from one panel to the next. “Older people never stop working but they are always positioned as burdens on their families. They are invisible to people’s eyes.”

The pictures bring the elderly into the limelight – their contributions as caregivers to children, performing household chores so the younger women can go out to work, as craftsmen and handymen. “Here is a picture of an old woman who looks like she is just hanging out and sorting out the garments that need to be ironed,” says Ms. Vera-Sanso. “What she is really doing is checking to see if the clothes have any holes or stains. In a corporation she would be the legal department!”

Will the increased pensions mean the elderly will be forced to stop working? “My concern is that people will be asked to stop working if they are granted pensions. This would be incarceration of the elderly as many of them socialise when they engage in their jobs,” says Ms. Vera-Sanso.

The contributions of the elderly are not studied in economic terms, observes V. Suresh of the Centre for Law, Policy & Human Rights Studies, Chennai, and one of the co-authors of the study. “We studied five slums in Chennai and sampled 800 households,” he says. “These photographs have had a big impact in changing the mind-set of people at the agitation. It shows the elderly contributing to the GDP instead of begging for pensions.”

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