ON THE OTHER HAND Columns

Focus on senior citizens, too

The trouble with writing a piece which appears at the end of the year is that one is expected to write about the year that has just gone by or the one that is coming up. But I really don’t have anything to say about 2017 that you don’t already know. Instead, as the sun sets on 2017, it is as good a time as any to turn our attention to those who are also in their sunset years: senior citizens.

Low pensions

The reason my attention turned to this topic, apart from my own grey pate and rapid nearing of the senior citizen discount, was that the indefatigable Aruna Roy, a former member of the United Progressive Alliance government’s National Advisory Council, once again petitioned the government — specifically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi — to do something about the scandalously low pension for which our senior citizens are eligible.

Writing on behalf of the Pension Parishad, a network of over 100 civil society organisations that deal with pensioners, Roy pointed out that the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme has been paying ₹200 a month as old-age pension, a sum which has remained unchanged since 2006, when it was introduced. Thanks to inflation, the value of this has depreciated to under ₹100 over the past 11 years, less than a day’s notified minimum wage.

Now this is neither the first time that Roy has raised the issue, nor is Mr. Modi the first Prime Minister she has petitioned in this regard. A few years ago, she even led a demonstration of pensioners outside then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s house and got detained by the police. But the response from the government’s or the Prime Minister’s Office now, as then, has been the same — silence.

This is a pity because unnoticed amidst the din surrounding India’s ‘demographic dividend’ — the giant bulge of young people joining the workforce — the fact that we have a serious ‘greying’ problem has gone unnoticed. According to the 2011 Census, there are 104 million elderly persons (aged 60 years or above) in India. The proportion of elderly was 8.6% in 2011 and is rising. Also, the average Indian can expect to live at least 18 years beyond the age of 60, which means the dependency ratio is also rising.

In dire straits

Social structures are also changing. The joint family system, which sustained the elderly, is virtually a thing of the past. This leaves a rising number of the elderly — even those who were at least middle class in their working years — in dire straits. There is no institutional support to speak of, the cost of both living and medicare is rising, eroding their savings, and the old-age pension, as Roy keeps pointing out, is a joke. With interest on bank deposits steadily falling — most middle class elderly actually depend on this to sustain themselves, as nobody in India other than government employees actually gets a pension after retirement — the problem has become quite dire even among those considered ‘affluent’ in our ocean of inequality.

The policy response to this has been less than adequate. Given the rising incidence of old people being abandoned by their families, the government passed a law in 2007 (the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act) to make maintenance of parents/senior citizens by children/relatives obligatory and justiciable through tribunals. The Act also provides for revocation of transfer of property by senior citizens in case of negligence by relatives, penal provision for abandonment, the establishment of old-age homes for the poor, adequate medical facilities for seniors, and many such grandiose goals. Like every attempt to legislate a solution to a social problem, this Act has miserably failed to serve its purpose.

The Ministry of Social Justice, the nodal ministry for the elderly, also has a grand plan called the Integrated Programme for Older Persons, which has been operational since 1992. But this is pathetically underfunded and languidly administered. By the Ministry’s own admission, the programme managed to reach just 23,095 beneficiaries in 2015-2016.

The way forward

What can be done to change this? For starters, Roy’s demand for a minimum universal monthly pension of ₹2,000 for the elderly is quite doable for a $2 trillion economy. Second, housing for the aged, particularly the aged poor, must be a priority and be made a subset of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. Assisted living facilities for indigent elderly, particularly those with age-related issues like dementia, needs policy focus. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley can do his bit by giving more tax breaks, or at least removing tax on deposit interest for seniors.

And finally, both the government and India Inc. can actually look at tapping into the experience and skills of this segment to ensure that older persons can continue to be productive and contributory members of society. The retirement age of 58 or 60, given the rising life expectancy, is simply a burn of talent which can be put to better use.


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Printable version | Jan 21, 2022 9:02:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/focus-on-senior-citizens-too/article22334883.ece

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