Sixty-five years after we gave unto ourselves a Constitution that promises dignity and justice for all, we find the promise far from being realised for a vast majority of the old and infirm. Their right to dignity, anchored in our civilisational ethos and constitutional philosophy is negated in multiple ways daily. The narrative is painfully eloquent, more so, because it relates to a society that has for centuries treated its elderly with reverence, raising fundamental issues regarding the moral and social values of a society in transition.
Long before individual dignity, understood in its widest amplitude, was elevated by the Supreme Court to a constitutional principle through an expansive interpretation of Article 21 [Mehmood N Azam vs State of Chhattisgarh & Ors. (2012), Deepak Bajaj vs State of Maharashtra (2008)]. The right was acknowledged as inherent in each one of us by virtue of our humanity. The view that “dignity inheres in personhood” is “derived from humanity as such”, is the “underpinning of all other rights and “inures in every human being as a result of self awareness” has been eloquently expounded by political philosophers and jurists, including Avishai Margalit, Malthus Mahlmann, Edward Eberle and Charles Taylor.
The right to dignity defining humanity itself is endorsed in all humanitarian charters including the UN Declaration on Human Rights (1948) and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (2000) et al. In relation to the rights of the ageing population globally, the World Assembly on Ageing (1982), the UN Principles for Older Persons (1991) and the Second World Assembly on Ageing (2002) have affirmed the primacy of dignity in its broadest manifestation. However, despite the formidable domestic and international legal architecture to secure the dignity of the elderly, the painful reality in our country is vastly different.
The population of senior citizens in 2011 was around 103 million. The percentage of senior citizens was 7.4% of the total population in 2001, which is likely to increase to 12.40% in 2026. By 2050 the overall population of India is expected to increase by 55%, but “the 60 plus will grow by 326 per cent and 80 plus group will grow by 700 per cent”.
According to the findings of the 39th Report of the Standing Committee on the Welfare of Senior Citizens, the amount spent on care of senior citizens is less than 0.038% of GDP.
The findings in a report by HelpAge India (Elder Abuse in India, 2014), based on a nationwide survey, are distressing indeed: In 2014, the percentage of elders abused went up from 23% in 2013 to 50%. Verbal abuse (41%), disrespect (33%) and neglect (29%) ranked as the most common types of abuse. Daughters-in-law (61%) and sons (59%) emerged as the principal perpetrators of abuse. ‘Emotional dependence’ on the abusers (46%), economic dependence (45%) and ‘changing ethos’ (38%) were identified as the primary reasons for abuse.
True stories of parents separated and made to stay with different children at the latter’s convenience and to share the ‘burden’ of ageing parents in the winter of their lives, poignantly captured in movies such as Baghban, are a damning indictment of changing social values that accord priority to ‘standards of living’ over ‘standards of life’ and to ambition over dignity.
The breakdown of the joint family system as the ‘edifice of old age care’ has heightened the duty of the State to create conditions so that the old can realise their self-worth. Ensuring dignity of its constituents is the ultimate raison d’être of the State and a foundational tenet of welfarism. Dignity of the aged is also ‘a moral term of appraisal’ encompassing the idea of justice, compassion and ‘minimal humanitarian morality’ that underpins our constitutional philosophy.
As part of a purposive agenda for realising the dignitarian goals of the Constitution, instrumentalities of the Indian State need to identify causes for an utterly indefensible infraction of the dignity of the older people despite a plethora of laws. As the tenth-largest economy in the world, the state just cannot plead lack of resources or economic capacity to abdicate its foremost constitutional responsibility.
A nationwide State-sponsored programme, complemented by private philanthropy and exertions of civil society dedicated exclusively to the welfare of the aged is a national imperative. This would enlarge the capacity of the individual to be the ‘lord of his fate and shaper of his future’ and enable us to move closer to the cherished ideal of a just and humane social order. Hopefully the pursuit of the constitutional ideal of dignity for all in larger freedom would lead us to ‘an age-irrelevant’ or an ‘age integrated society’.
Ashwani Kumar is a former minister of law and justice. The views expressed are personal.