You are left with no choice in old age, if you are poor.
The process of ageing involves the continuous biological decline of the body and mind with the passing of years. People become forgetful, their vision fades, they hear less, and find it hard to walk. Senility and neurosis are common. It has always been this way. Thirteenth century Sufi poet Rumi sings wistfully of this universal mystery of life: “Why is it that the lion's strength weakens to nothing? The wrestler who could hold anyone down is led out with two people supporting him, their shoulders under his arms?”
This summer, elderly people from villages and slums across the land gathered for five scorching days in Jantar Mantar, the capital's site for public protest. There were among them farm workers and small farmers, casual daily workers, head-loaders and construction labourers, artisans and sex workers. After lifetimes of hard labour, when their wearied bodies sought rest and health-care, they are instead condemned to toil until their last day, if they are to eat.
Their demand in what they called the Pension Parishad was that every aged person in the country who does not pay income tax, or draw a pension from other sources, should be entitled to a monthly pension from the State. A public official is paid a pension equivalent to half the last salary that he or she drew. By the same logic, all aged people from the informal sector should receive a pension that is at least half the statutory minimum wage for unskilled work, which amounts to around 2,000 rupees a month.
This massive public demonstration concerning the destinies of more than 90 million people, tellingly attracted little more than a few inches of newsprint, and hardly any discussion in the loquacious television talk-shows. In an impatiently youthful nation, the aged no longer seem to matter.
The inexorable decline in physical strength with age does not necessarily imply a decline in social worth. On the contrary, in many traditional societies, the aged taught the young the values of the community, and were anchors of the community in difficult times. But in modern society, old people find themselves increasingly pushed to the margins, poorly valued, often barely tolerated, or actively abandoned and expelled.
These problems are compounded greatly for old men and women from impoverished households. They carry many burdens: Economic deprivation and insecurity, restricted mobility because of ill-health, physical insecurity, lowered dignity and self-esteem, loneliness, rejection, and lack of dignified occupation and leisure. The UNPF estimates that 70 per cent of the elderly are illiterate: The figure is as high as 93 per cent for aged women. This severely limited their capacity to earn and save when they were strong of body and mind; it limits them even more as they age.
It is estimated that round 75 per cent of old persons live in rural India, of which over 48 per cent are women and more than half are widows. My colleagues and I undertook a year-long study of hunger among destitute groups in villages in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Odisha. Significantly, large numbers of the most destitute people we encountered in any village were aged persons, several of them living alone.
We found that life, especially for old persons without care givers, is one of unrelieved toil until their last day, of humiliation and daily denial. They suffer daily indignities in securing food through foraging and begging, debt bondage and low end highly underpaid work; self denial; and sacrifice of other survival needs like medicine.
Chronic food shortages often demand the most unreasonable of choices, between food and medicines, such as the choice between eating to stay alive and buying medicines to relieve unbearable pain. Many old people simply try to wait out an attack of illness rather than seek treatment, because if they go to an (often dubious) health practitioner, it means even less food in their stomachs or in those of spouses and others who are dependent on them.
Old people in poor families usually need to work regardless of whether they live separately or with their sons (or occasionally daughters); they still need to contribute to the household in productive ways. Employers know they are desperate and powerless; they pay them very low wages, often nothing more than food, country liquor and a new set of clothes every year.
The work they are offered is physically difficult like cattle grazing on steep scrub hillsides with little foliage, weeding, sewing, cutting grass for fodder, cleaning cowsheds, husking and drying grain and gathering firewood and dung and similar activities that require work that is exacting and toilsome, and payment exploitative. Even this is always offered like charity to the unproductive and undeserving, rather than as a rightful claim to work.
Old people are mostly rudely turned away when they seek food on credit from shopkeepers. Trying to buy groceries on credit is always a humiliating experience. Shopkeepers sardonically remark that there is no guarantee how long old people will live; they may slyly slip away to the other world without repaying their loans.
However infirm they are, however sick, however challenged to feed dependents or themselves, there is no prospect for food for them unless and until they work. If begging is also considered work, then this is virtually an unbroken rule that applied almost universally among the old, who also happen to be poor.
It was such men and women who briefly gathered in the city's capital. They asked many questions of us. If people who work for government or private companies get pensions, why not us? If the country cannot afford a pension for the poor, how come it can afford it for those who need it far less desperately than us? The government finds money for what it feels is necessary — for armaments, for building glittering cities, and yes, for multi-crore scams. Then why not for a well-earned retirement for those who laboured all their lives?
They asked many questions of us. But we had few answers.
Co-written by Oommen C. Kurian