Uncared for, in the sunset of life

The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, is aimed at ensuring that senior citizens, who cannot fend for themselves, are provided food, clothing, residence, medical attendance and treatment by their children or relatives. But not many have actually used the law to claim maintenance, and in the few instances that cases have been filed, there has not been much success, a recent study shows

N. Chinnammal (name changed), aged around 70 and a native of Vembathur in Sivaganga district, was brought by her daughter and a few relatives to the Government Rajaji Hospital in Madurai recently for treatment. Within a day, however, the family absconded from the hospital, leaving Ms. Chinnammal to fend for herself.

V.P. Manikandan, a marketing professional who helps with the rescue of such abandoned persons, said that cases like that of Ms. Chinnammal are quite common. “In her case, the family at least left her at the hospital. In most cases, the elders are just abandoned on streets,” he said.

A law that sought to come to the rescue, precisely for people in the same situation as Ms. Chinnammal, has failed them. Ten years after it was brought in, a study has shown that not only is there very little awareness about The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, but that even in cases where applications have been made, the system is not very supportive or user-friendly. Social workers familiar with the situation say creating more awareness, besides better implementation of the Act and fixing loopholes in it, would help bring solace to senior citizens left uncared for.

What the law provides

The Maintenance Act is aimed at ensuring senior citizens, who cannot provide for themselves, have food, clothing, residence, medical attendance and treatment provided by their children or relatives. The Madras High Court in a judgement in 2015 observed that the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, (MWPSC) had been enacted with the aim of providing for more effective provisions for the maintenance and welfare of parents and senior citizens guaranteed and recognised under the Constitution.

According to the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Act, the traditional norms and values of Indian society laid stress on providing care for the elderly. “However, due to the withering of the joint family system, a large number of elderly are not being looked after by their family. Consequently, many older persons, particularly widowed women, are now forced to spend their twilight years all alone and are exposed to emotional neglect and to lack of physical and financial support,” it stated.

Though parents could claim maintenance under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), 1973, the procedure was considered time-consuming, as well as expensive, and hence the special Act.

For availing the legal options available, the parent or the senior citizen could approach the Sub Divisional Magistrate and this decision could be appealed against before the Appellate Authority, also the District Collector. Their decisions could be challenged before the High Court.


Reality is different

But in case after case, NGO HelpAge India, which conducted the study, found that there were long delays, petitioners faced harassment from their families, and that even when they were granted a maintenance allowance, it was often not paid or paid temporarily and then stopped.

The study, completed in March this year, had a total of 115 respondents from four States — Punjab, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Of these, 52% had applied for maintenance and 48% for property-related disputes. Over half of them were single and 23.5% were illiterate.

Single, elderly women seem particularly vulnerable. Fifty-five-year-old Amara Ben from Bihar was rescued from the roadside near Coimbatore railway junction eight months ago. Though she has four children, they were not willing to take care of her and she says she does not know how she came to Coimbatore. She is now at a home run by the Missionaries of Charity.

Fifty-three-year old M. Meena, whose husband died four years ago, was dumped by her relatives near the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital three years ago in an unconscious state. She is also an inmate of the home now.

According to the Coimbatore District Social Welfare Officer Sherin Philip, the district administration had 22 complaints from senior citizens under MWPSC Act against their wards in the district. Of these, three were resolved, eight were under conciliation and the rest were pending resolution.

In Tamil Nadu, where respondents from Chennai and Tiruvallur districts were interviewed, the study found that the system for filing petitions was not properly organised. Of the four States studied, Tamil Nadu had the lowest number of settled cases. It also had the lowest number of women petitioners, as well as the highest number of petitioners living alone. In Tamil Nadu, as per the 2011 Census, the proportion of the elderly is high – 10.7% of people are over the age of 60, the third highest in the country.

Implementing officials too were interviewed, and those from Chennai said that property disputes needed to be handled by land-grab cells. They also said the police needed to be sensitised on the needs of the elderly, and added that staff, besides being overworked, had not received any training on the Act.

Lack of awareness cited

“Laws like the MWPSC Act exist only on paper. Though action can be taken against the family under the Act and to ensure the welfare of Ms. Chinnammal, we could not do much since the mechanisms do not exist,” says Mr. Manikandan.

He points to the lack of awareness among officials and police personnel, and the non-existence of tribunals that are supposed to be set up as per the Act to hear cases.

“Unlike Acts such as the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act or Scheduled Castes Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, there has been no push from the government to create awareness about the MWPSC Act among officials and the public,” he says.

Mathew Cherian, chief executive, HelpAge India, says State governments needed to introduce the Act into all government training programmes and ensure there were budgetary allocations for the tribunals mandated by the Act. He also points out that many government buildings were not accessible to the elderly, and this needed rectification. “There is also a need for senior citizen cells in the police department in all districts,” he adds. People must be educated about the Act, emphasised senior geriatrician V. S. Natarajan, who runs the Dr. V.S. Natarajan Geriatric Foundation that serves elders. “Even if they are suffering, most senior citizens are reluctant to go to court unless the abuse is very severe,” he says.

P. Ramar, managing trustee of Mother Teresa Educational Trust, which runs a shelter for the homeless urban poor in Madurai, points out that several other provisions of the Act were yet to be implemented.

Old age homes

“For instance, the Act says that adequate number of old age homes should be set up in each district. However, there are hardly any such dedicated homes in most districts. Homes like ours, which are meant for the urban homeless poor, are doubling as old age homes. But we do not have the means and expertise to assist if they are ill,” he says.

R. Balagurusamy, managing trustee, Nethravathi Pain and Palliative Care Centre, highlighted that hospice care for elderly people is a non-starter. “Though some government hospitals, including GRH, now have geriatric wards as mandated by the Act, they are not of much use since they do not cater to patients who are alone,” he explains.

But even if there is sufficient awareness, one hurdle that might be difficult to surmount could be the emotional angle. Social activist T. Senthil Kumar, who runs Anbalayam, a service organisation in Tiruchi that takes care of the elderly, sick and bedridden, says notwithstanding the Act, the predominant attitude of even aggrieved elders would be to desist from acting against their children. The emotional factor would prohibit elders from going against their own children even in extreme circumstances. They may go to the extent of ending their lives silently rather than approach the law enforcers, Mr. Senthil Kumar says.

(With inputs from Dennis S. Jesudasan in Chennai, Pon Vasanth Arunachalam in Madurai, R. Rajaram in Tiruchi and R. Arivanantham in Coimbatore)

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 1:34:35 AM |

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