Sunday Anchor

Old but not gold

India now has over 100 million citizens over the age of 60, five times the number in 1950.  

Independent India was born an extraordinarily young country. The median age was just a little over 21, and nearly 60 per cent of the population was under 25. With life expectancy just 36 years, the issue of managing an ageing population must have seemed like challenges for the distant future.

Much has changed since: as health and nutrition have improved, average life expectancy has climbed to over 66 years. Simultaneously, with better education and access to health, women are having fewer children than ever before; the median age has climbed to nearly 27; and for the first time in history, less than half the country is under 25.

India now has over 100 million citizens over the age of 60, five times the number in 1950. Seniors now make up 8.6 per cent of the population. By 2050, India will have nearly 300 million seniors and make up about a fifth of the population, as per projections from the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat.

Compared globally, these numbers seem small; by 2050, a third of Brazil’s and China’s populations will be seniors, a third of Japan’s population is already over 60. India’s old age dependency ratio – the number of seniors for every 100 working age persons – is under 10, and even by 2050, will not have crossed 20.

But the conditions in which India’s seniors live as well as the current status of official policies on senior citizens raise serious doubts about whether India is ready to face a greying future.

For one, national averages hide the wide variation among the States. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are incredibly still getting younger — while India as a whole has 31 per cent of its population under the age of 14, the corresponding number for U.P. is 35.69 per cent and an astounding 40.1 per cent for Bihar; four out of every 10 people in Bihar is under 14. This is the highest for any State; possibly even the world’s highest. While the rest of the country has lowered the proportion of its under-14 population, in Bihar the proportion has actually increased by over 10 percentage points since 2001.

There is also a full ten years of difference between the median ages of U.P. (between 20 and 21) and Kerala (between 30 and 31). Just over 7 per cent of Bihar and U.P. is over 60, while for Tamil Nadu the proportion is over 10 per cent and for Kerala 12.5 per cent. The southern States, having already achieved replacement fertility levels — the average woman has as many children as are needed to maintain the population at the same level but no more — will soon stop growing and age faster.

Intra-family dynamics are changing too. As families get smaller, more seniors today live alone. The 2011 Indian Census found 50 lakh people living alone, a growing proportion but still relatively small at 5 per cent of all seniors. Simultaneously, the number of seniors who live in families of four or more — what could be joint families — has dropped substantially since 2001. Another major change since Independence is that women now outlive men, as they do in most of the world, a trend that was inverted in 1950. As a result, nearly half of all women seniors are widowed, and another 1 per cent is either divorced or separated.

Nearly half the people over 60 are in the workforce, and a third in full-time employment. More, nearly a quarter of 80-plus citizens still work, most in full-time jobs. This is not surprising since India’s official safety net for seniors is in a shambles.

The NDA government has cut allocations to the National Social Assistance Programme, which provides pensions to the elderly, widows and differently-abled, by Rs. 1,000 crore in the new budget. “The scheme provides just Rs. 200 in pensions, a sum the previous government had promised to raise. It needed to be raised and the scheme strengthened,” said Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and Pension Parishad.

Other middle income countries have far wider social security nets. In Brazil, rural workers aged over 60 and all the poor get a pension equal to the minimum wage without having contributed while they worked. India meanwhile has no non-contributory universal pension scheme.

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 4:28:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/sunday-anchor-old-but-not-gold/article10761974.ece

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