The common narrative on the state of India’s elderly invariably focuses on the breakdown of the joint family system and its values. This skewed perspective seems to have inspired the Bill for social security of the elderly. The measure envisages imprisonment for children who do not take care of their parents, allows police registration of complaints by parents against their children, and for magistrates to fix allowances that children should pay parents. A policy that seeks to ensure social security for India’s elderly — expected to touch 100 million over the next decade — should be a comprehensive document that spans the emotional, financial and health needs of senior citizens across all strata of society. However, the draft Bill restricts itself to legislating the ‘responsibilities’ of children.
The government has tried, over the past decade, to address the problem in fits and starts. The 1999 National Policy for Older Persons seems unlikely to deliver if the challenges facing the elderly are not addressed in a more realistic and creative manner. The pension scheme, (including the National Old Age Pension scheme for the destitute elderly) reaches out to a fraction of the target populace. The support that joint families offer brooks no argument. But in focusing on this issue, the State is absolving itself of the responsibility of providing adequate geriatric healthcare, including basic nursing facilities and providing incentives and regulations for senior citizens. Assisted-living facilities are non-existent in India, while old-age homes are often perceived to be dumping grounds for the unwanted.
But taking care of our aged is not just the government’s job. There is a moral dimension that cannot be addressed by legislation and coercion. We have to ask ourselves as to what kind of a society we are becoming when we have to have coercive measures to ensure the care of our parents. Commitment to the welfare of senior citizens cannot be enforced through law alone. It also requires a caring and sensitive society, a responsibility that must be shared by all Indians.