We often assume that our greatest dangers are from strangers on dark streets or from violent men who might break into our houses. The sad truth is that the highest perils of brutal and persistent violence lurk within the intimate spaces of our homes, from those to whom we are closest. Little illustrates this with more poignancy and immediacy than a recent 12-city study by Helpage India. Its stunning finding is that every second elderly person who its researchers spoke to testified to suffering abuse within their families.
India is home to 100 million elderly people today. Their numbers are likely to increase threefold in the next three decades. People are living much longer and couples raising fewer children; moreover three in four elders still report living with their children. The result is that smaller numbers of adults are responsible for many more years of old-age care than ever in the past, and as bodies and minds of ageing parents dwindle, somewhere along the way in crowded urban habitats, relationships within families have come under great strain. Ugly cracks are beginning to show.
The abuse elders report are common across social classes and cities, although there are differences between cities, as Bengaluru and Nagpur report the highest elder abuse and Delhi and Kanpur the least. Four in 10 old people testify to verbal abuse, three to neglect, and a third to disrespect. One in five recount enduring such abuse almost daily, a third around once a week, and a fifth every month. Six in 10 report the daughter-in-law and an almost equal number the son as the major sources of abuse against them. Just 7% daughters are abusive of their parents, and no grandchildren.
Nearly half the old people interviewed in the study identified one common reason for their abuse in the hands of their children: That they depend economically on their children. Motilal, an ageing plumber in East Delhi, still spends much of his day repairing water taps, but still does not earn enough for his basic needs. His son denies him enough food and money for medicines. Mansi, an unlettered widow in the same city, is given only two chapatis a day by her daughter-in-law and her son refuses money even for her cataract operation. A flower-seller in Bengaluru, Ramanna, moved with his wife to live with his son as his health declined and he could no longer bear the daily rigours of street vending. But both old people are forced to work all day, ‘worse than domestic servants’, and even their simple needs are refused.
Keshav in Kolkata in desperation sold his shop to provide for his needs and those of his wife, but the money ran out and they are back to near-destitution. He lives with his four married brothers, and his wife cooks for all of them. But when she fell ill, none were willing to pay for her surgery, the money they said would be wasted on a person so old. He pleaded with the local councillor, who raised some donations. ‘It is because they are so dependent on others that old people are made to count their days until the end in our society,’ he laments.
But ironically, nearly a third of the old people feel that their abuse results not from their dependence economically on their children but from the dependence of their adult children, mostly sons, on their small incomes. Ramiah in Bengaluru has a reasonable income by renting out his house, but the income from this is the bone of contention between him and his son and daughter-in-law.
With his failing health, he spends a major part of his income on his medical care, but they harass him constantly for his money. Uma, a widow in the same metropolis, could have met her needs with her husband’s pension of Rs 10,000, but her son would snatch this away each month, and would refuse even to pay her medical costs. Unable to bear this, she finally moved out and lives alone.
Mohinder in Delhi owns both his shop, which gives him a decent income, and the house in which his two sons live. But the elder son still harasses him for money to spend on alcohol, and is rude and disrespectful as well. A widow in Kolkata, Malti, is beaten with the end of a towel by her daughter-in-law, especially after she willed her husband’s property to her daughter.
A railway pensioner in Chennai, Manilingam, could not handle the constant abuse by his son’s wife and chose to move out and live a lonely separate life. But many old people cannot bring themselves to take this terminal step: They report that even more than their economic dependence, it is their emotional dependence on their children, and most of all love for their grandchildren that binds them to their sons’ homes, even if they suffer abuse and neglect. It is these ties with her grandchildren that weigh down Lata, a widow in Nagpur, incessantly abused by her daughter-in-law whenever she considers leaving her son’s home to live by herself.
In many villages, I have seen desperately poor households migrating for work in the cities, leaving their old parents behind, to beg or invisibly die of hunger. I try not to judge them, and their parents mostly do not as well, because of the desperation of their children’s want.
Our self-image in India is of a people who lay less in store by material pursuits and uphold the institution of the family. The Helpage India report is an unhappy reminder of how distant from this the realities of the changing India are. The melancholy stories the report bring to us of the changing landscape of human relations in urban India are not of desperate want but material greed, of economic dependence and disputes over property and income resulting in growing abuse and neglect of aged people within our homes.
Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal