The Aamir Khan Column: As a society we have created infrastructure and support systems to help us look after our children. No such system exists for the elderly.
I think India must be one of the few places where, culturally and traditionally, there is so much respect for elders. It is probably the only country where we touch the feet of our elders as a mark of respect. Yet at a practical level and in how our infrastructure is geared, we are far behind many other countries and societies in looking after the elderly. Among the many changes in India is the gradual shift from the joint family to the nuclear family, and it is transforming our relationship with the elders in our families. Today a person working and living in a large city has many demands on him. She has very little time for herself and her own children and spouse. What happens to our elders in this changing scenario? We need to plan better for our elders, and in fact, for ourselves because sooner or later all of us (no matter how much we resist it) will eventually get there.
The average lifespan in 1947 was 31 years. So the number of people living beyond the age of retirement, that is, 60 years, would not have been very high. Also, at that time, the joint family could be counted on for its support system. Today the average life span is around 65 years, and the number of people living beyond 60 years is dramatically higher. It is now fairly common to see people living up to the age of 75 or 80 years. That is 20 years of life after retirement. Add to this the remaining living years of your spouse. So, whatever I have earned and saved over 40 years has to last me and my spouse another 20 years. And remember these last two decades of our lives will be the time when our expenditure on health would be highest. Of course, I’m not even getting into inflation. So can my spouse and I live comfortably and independently for 20 to 25 years without earning? Unlikely, for most of us. So who is going to look after us? Our children? But they might have their own problems. So perhaps one of the things that each of us really need to look at, after retiring at the age of 60 from a government or a corporate job, is a way to continue to earn a living and remain productive for as long as possible.
As a society we have created infrastructure and support systems to help us to look after our children. So, we have for our children 10 years of school i.e., from the age of six to 16. Before that, we have kindergarten, before kindergarten we have nursery, before nursery we have play schools and crèches that help to look after our children. No such support system exists in our society for the elderly. We need to have more professional organisations that bring the elderly together so that they can be productive in how they spend their time, and have a good time even after they are past retirement age. ‘Nana-Nani’ or ‘Dada-Dadi’ parks are examples. Recreation centres or parks for senior citizens are being run by local self-government bodies, NGOs, senior citizen groups and local area bodies in different parts of the country. They get grants from the government, the area municipality and sometimes, from donors or sponsors. Delhi has been particularly active in this regard — it has over 75 such recreation centres and the Delhi government offers some financial aid and assistance for starting and the upkeep of such endeavours.
As pointed out by Mr. Himanshu Rath on our show, a huge percentage of our voting population is above the age of 60 and that number is growing. And most of our politicians are also above the age of 60. Despite this, there are very few facilities or policies designed for the elderly by the Centre or various State governments. The Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme (IGNOAPS) was launched by the Ministry of Rural Development. All persons of 65 years and above who are below the poverty line, according to the criteria prescribed by the Government of India, are eligible for the scheme. The pension amount is Rs.200 per month per person. Most States give between Rs.200 and Rs.500 to senior citizens below the poverty line. Some State governments have been more generous. Tamil Nadu gives Rs.1,000, 20 kg of free rice to cardholders and 35 kg to families classified as the “poorest of the poor.” Goa gives all senior citizens a pension of Rs.2,000 per month, not just those below the poverty line.
In essence we need to remember that just touching the feet of our elders is not enough. It should not become a meaningless gesture which we go through because of tradition, rather it should be a gesture born out of genuine affection, love and respect. And what we should never forget is that where our elders are today we will be tomorrow.
Jai Hind. Satyamev Jayate.
(Aamir Khan is an actor. His column will be published in The Hindu every Monday.)