India is currently gung-ho about the demographic dividends it is set to reap on account of its huge working-age population. Yet, at the same time, there is cause for worry about the scenario at the other end of the spectrum — the elderly who are increasingly becoming insecure about livelihood, healthcare and even shelter. The State’s apparent solution lies in the recently proposed Parents and Senior Citizens (Welfare and Maintenance) Bill, which makes it mandatory for children to care for their parents and grandparents. Non-compliance could invite punitive action, including imprisonment. The slew of cases in family courts by parents seeking maintenance from their children suggests that this legislation will be welcomed by the aged. India has a strong tradition of familial support, and even today, with joint families on the decline, children’s disregard for their ageing parents’ welfare is considered morally unacceptable.
Even so, is it wise for the State to criminalise such action? Besides infringing on the personal domain, it may sometimes not be possible for a number of families living in straitened circumstances to take on the additional responsibility of caring for their aged parents. Besides, one needs to question the appropriateness of the State imposing a responsibility over individuals that it has itself been unable, rather unwilling, to fulfil. It was only in 1999 that the Centre even framed a set of guidelines to provide financial security, healthcare, shelter and protection to the country’s ageing population. But lack of political will and hesitation to commit adequate funds for the schemes has led to tardy implementation. The erosion of traditional family structures means that it has become more important than ever to foster a sense of independence among the elderly. It is for this that sincere action on the part of the State is imperative.
As of now, the majority of the elderly, especially those from the unorganised employment sector, receive little retirement benefits. It goes without saying that lack of livelihood security during a person’s productive years is one of the main reasons for financial instability in later years. The State has another reason to be worried about the near absence of long-term development planning concerning the care of its ageing population. According to demographic studies, by 2026, India’s elderly population will more than double, from the current 71 million (2001 Census) to nearly 173 million. Unless the government pulls up its socks now and plans for this eventuality, India will have a huge price to pay.