The government’s draft National Policy on Senior Citizens, though well-intentioned, can be described only as a statement of wishes and without the backing of legislation this will not result in much. We have the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, which mandates that children shall be legally bound to provide for their parents. Some lacunae had been observed in the law and this led to the National Policy on Senior Citizens set out in 2011, which took into account the constitutional diktat given to the State to make “make effective provision for securing the right to public assistance in cases of old age”. The policies also talked about the “right to equality” and social security as being the “concurrent responsibilities of the central and state governments”. It acquired even greater importance when seen in the light of the fact that India was a signatory to several international covenants on the subject. But the fact that the government had to again bring out a draft policy in just four years proves that the previous one did not make much headway.
A close look at the two policies — 2011 and 2016 – shows many similarities between them. Even the enumeration of the senior citizens of India stands at the same number — about 100 million. Both talk about the health needs of the elderly and health insurance for them. Both take into account the breakdown of the joint family system as a reason for the plight of the elderly. The 2011 policy also considered the fact that since men and women grew old in different ways, women deserved more attention because they were more prone to chronic illnesses. Though we in India have a tradition of respecting our elder citizens, such respect does not always go further than someone sacrificing his seat in a bus or a metro train in their favour. There have been instances of old men and women being abandoned at places such as the Kumbh mela. At home too, old people are looked upon as a burden. Changing these things does not only require a mindset change. It requires the strong backing of the State, which the current policy seeks to provide.
The most important reason for the ineffectiveness of the 2007 legislation was that it was difficult to execute because of the difficulties in apprehending the guilty. And in many cases the extent of guilt cannot be established. True, our society is not as harsh as that depicted in The Ballad of Narayama, in which once a person turned 70 he would be forcibly taken to a location and left to die. Within a structure of family relationships there are many cracks and crevices that the law may not be able to reach. So the wiser policy for the State would be enhance the social-welfare schemes for the old, particularly women, and create a lot more amenities for them. This must be written into the law.