That insightful, sensitive, and focussed coverage of social problems and issues by the news media can play an agenda-building role even if the direct impact is limited is borne out by this investigative story of a fatal oil bath published in a recent issue of Tehelka magazine (November 20, 2010). It began like this: “An exercise in love and health when given to newborn children, a ceremonial beginning to festivals, and the universal answer to pitiless summers. In Tamil Nadu's small industry hub of Virudhunagar, however, it is the beginning of ‘slow murder.' The marker of the devastating poverty that makes a son kill his own ageing mother.” This is one of a large number of articles on the darker side of social life that the magazine has been publishing for nearly a decade.
“Mother, shall I put you to sleep?” brings to light how a section of people in this commercially advanced region of southern Tamil Nadu — a State often described as “progressive and prosperous” — have found a “less painful” solution to the existential challenge of confronting penury .
The investigation discovered a small trend, shocking in itself but capable of growing into a social menace if it was not addressed at its root. Younger members of some families were pushing their infirm, elderly dependents to death because, it was explained, they could not afford to take care of them. The deadly modus is known locally as ‘thalaikkoothal,' a leisurely oil bath. This is how they go about it.
The elderly person is given an extensive oil bath before dawn. The rest of the day, he or she is given several glasses of tender coconut water. (Ironically, this is everything a mother would have told her child not to do while taking an oil bath.) The Tehelka reporter quotes a practising doctor in Madurai as explaining that tender coconut water, taken in excess, brings on renal failure. By evening, the body temperature falls sharply and in a day or two, the old man or woman dies of high fever. The method does not generally fail because, as the doctor further explains, “the elderly persons often do not have the immunity to survive the sudden fever.” The investigation found further that local folk have other deadly tricks up their sleeve, procedures such as “milk treatment” and “thrusting mud dissolved in water down the throat,” which is “the most painful of the lot.” Killer injections and poisons were resorted to at times. A strange and poignant aspect of the inhuman practice of doing away with old people is that it does not, according to the Tehelka article, provoke anger or fear among those marked out for murder. The typical attitude is one of “helpless resignation.” The entire thing is taken as “an accepted practice,” which a doctor claims has been in use for more than three decades. The district collector, who has expressed his shock over the incidents, has arranged for an investigation by the administration.
The Hindu, in a couple of reports published in 2008, warned of deteriorating economic conditions in the region, which had forced younger people to migrate to towns and cities looking for jobs and leaving their parents and dependants in villages to fend for themselves. “The problem of elders,” one of the stories noted, “is compounded by the absence of employment caused by successive failure of monsoon.” Another report revealed that Valandur, Karumathur, Keeripatti, Pappapatti, and some other neighbouring villages had a strange but common practice of the elderly being “dispossessed by their families once they became non-contributors to household income.
This phenomenon of children looking at their parents as a burden that could not be carried along was first noticed by National Service Scheme volunteers of Arul Anandar College.” The Principal of the college said that it was a painful issue; it was the prevailing economic condition that determined the phenomenon of inclusion or exclusion of the elderly people.
That this was the very region where more than two decades ago intrepid journalistic investigation brought to light the atrocious social practice of female infanticide and subsequently female feticide. The expose by a popular Tamil magazine developed into a countrywide movement against this cruel practice, which was justified and rationalised by the families, citing desperate poverty. The media, print as well as broadcast, were in the forefront of a campaign for tough and effective legislative and regulatory measures to eliminate the practice .
The hope is that Tehelka magazine's recent expose of the equally heinous practice of doing away with aged parents and dependants, by whatever name called, will give an impetus to the government's efforts to take care of senior citizens who cannot look after themselves. The key will be effective action, backed by adequate resources, in the villages of India. Inasmuch as the economic policies of governments at the Centre and in the States contribute to the widening of disparities in income, wealth, and living conditions and to the inexorable rise in the prices of essential commodities, the state must accept primary responsibility to remedy the situation and, at the very least, provide effective relief. As has happened in the case of most welfare legislation and social policy measures, the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act enacted in 2007 has not been implemented sincerely. This becomes even more important in the context of rising longevity in society and the substantial increase in the number of senior citizens in recent decades as part of the development process.
The Hindu's Open Page has carried several insightful articles in recent months on this challenge facing rising India. My hope is that the main news section and the feature sections of the newspaper, and also other major newspapers and magazines, will give more space to these issues and cover them in a sustained way, so that they get more public and policy attention.