“The perception that people retire after 60 is true with the higher/middle income group, but the poor in Chennai work till they are physically worn out,” says a study conducted by Birkbeck College, University of London and the Center for Law, Policy and Human Rights Studies, Chennai.

Ageing and poverty, the double burden of the elderly poor of Chennai, is the principal focus of this study. A survey of 800 households spread over five slums in Chennai, conducted over the last two years, shows that 32 per cent of those who are working to earn a livelihood are more than 60 years of age.

“Unlike the privileged, the urban poor in Chennai do not have the social support system and are forced to work for long years. One fifth of those surveyed between the age of 70 and 79 years are still working. Despite their presence in large numbers and economic contribution, the elderly poor of Chennai are overlooked and not accommodated in the city plans,” explains Penny Vera-Sanso, lecturer at Birkbeck College and a lead researcher of this study.

The study points out that the old-age pension amount of Rs.400 a month, given through the National Old Age Pension Scheme (NOAP) is grossly insufficient in the light of high rentals charged even for a bare hut and increasing food costs.

Rani (name changed), a 70-year-old widow, in addition to the pension she receives, earns Rs.550 a month working as domestic servant. Of the total Rs.950, she pays Rs.550 as monthly rent for the hut she lives in and Rs.50 towards electricity charges. The remaining amount is just enough to have a meal a day.

Those who live in the tenements are not any better off. V. Suresh of the Center for Law, Policy and Human Rights Studies explains that “the tenements are cramped and crowded. The elders, who support the family, by taking the burden of the household indirectly and directly, move out of the tenement in the night to sleep on the street so that the rest of the family can use it.”

The survey also reveals that the number of old working men is twice the number of old working women. However, it is the women who work further into old age and end up supporting the men who wear out relatively quickly.

Apart from those who work as domestic help, the rest do not have a fixed income. Many strive to make a living by taking to street vending. These elderly poor often face threat of displacement and eviction.

“They are overlooked in the city plans in spite of their contribution to the city’s economy. So far we have not come across any concrete measures such as providing proportionate space for street vending and reserving part of them for the elderly poor in the Chennai’s master plan. This needs to be rectified,” says Dr. Vera-Sanso.

“The issue of housing for the poor has not been adequately addressed. As a result, the elderly poor, who own small tenements, are under pressure to part with them or share with the growing family. If the policy of allotting land to slum dwellers and permitting incremental growth had been encouraged, the current situation of marginalisation and exclusion of the elderly could have been avoided,” adds Dr. Suresh.

A photo-exhibition, ‘We too contribute!’ showcasing the numerous occupations in which the elderly poor are engaged will be inaugurated on Wednesday at the M.O.P. Vaishanav College for Women, Nungambakkam.

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