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The withering of age

The informal sector assures few social security protections to the elderly poor. A universal pension scheme can no longer be treated as an unreasonable demand. Harsh Mander writes.

india Updated: May 22, 2012 21:20 IST

In a Bangladeshi folk story, a disabled grandfather is carried by his son in a basket, to be abandoned in the forest. On seeing this, the grandson calls out, 'Father, please be sure to bring back the basket. I will need it when you grow old'.

Three thousand ageing men and women gathered in Delhi in the blazing midsummer heat to demand a universal pension for all aged people, not less than half the minimum wages they would have earned had they been of able body. The Government of India today guarantees a pension of Rs. 400 a month to all persons above 60 years who are identified to be Below Poverty Line (BPL). State governments have variously added to this amount.

The meagre official pension today, equivalent to just around 4 to 8 days' statutory minimum wages in most states, is way too little for dignified survival. There are huge problems of delay and corruption in this small amount of money reaching old people on time in most states, unchecked because of the powerlessness of the aged. Even so, our studies show that pensions are the life-line of survival for impoverished old people, when it reaches them.

In the formal sector, old age is a time of well-earned rest on a reasonable pension, of around half the salary drawn when a person retires. But this is only a dream for most old people, because the informal sector assures few social security protections. Most indigent old persons, therefore, are forced to look for work, even when their limbs, breathing and eyesight fail. The National Sample Survey Organisation in 2004-05 estimated that around 37 million elderly in India are engaged in productive work. The actual numbers are likely to be much higher, because poor old people in the countryside are condemned to the most casualised work, within or outside homes, underpaid and devalued, in order to feed themselves each day. In most MGNREGA sites, I have found significant numbers of aged persons, struggling with the demands of hard manual labour.

Fractures in the joint family system and commonly owned property, urban migration, shortage of accommodation in cities and different individualistic cultural norms have all contributed to sharply eroding family care of the aged. The crumbling of joint families, loneliness and the lack of physical and emotional support systems, compound their struggles to survive with dignity. Earlier, impoverished men in villages tended to migrate alone, leaving behind the elders with their spouses and children. Today, increasingly, they migrate with their nuclear families, leaving behind their elders literally to beg for food, or die.

Increasing numbers of aged persons are forced to live alone, or only with their spouses. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that around one-fifth of the elderly live alone or with a spouse only both in the rural and urban areas. The percentage is as high as 45% in Tamil Nadu, and significant in Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab and Kerala. This trend is likely to accelerate country-wide, deepening the need of the elderly for economic, social and psychological support.

Current official pension arrangements cover too few people, with too little. Existing poverty lines are really starvation lines. As development economist Jean Dreze observes, "They were not meant as an eligibility condition for social support". Further, "the 'BPL Census' invariably turns out to be a hit-or-miss affair". He adds that "elderly people may be severely neglected even in relatively well-off households. The impossibility of identifying BPL households is compounded with the impossibility of ascertaining the distribution of resources within the family". For all these reasons, "there is a strong case for universal pensions, along with a universal PDS - both are needed by the elderly as well as by other vulnerable groups".

The immediate reaction to the demand for a universal pension for all aged persons who are not covered by formal pension schemes, or pay income tax, is that this is an impractical, unacceptable demand, because the country could not afford the 'burden' of a universal pension. It is interesting that most references to ageing in public policy are today prefixed with the word 'burden'. For a culture which valued the aged as repositories of wisdom and experience, and looked up to them for wise counsel and socialising the young, we have indeed come a long way. In today's obsession with economic growth, people are valued mainly as producers and consumers. The aged no longer qualify for respect and worth.

Any public intervention for the 'non-productive' elderly is seen as a drain on the exchequer. Every State effort at expanding social security is criticised as 'pulling growth down'. Global literature on ageing abounds with alarmist speculation, pitting 'workers versus the elderly', and drawing worrying scenarios, where the latter are seen as 'an increasingly costly burden on the rest of society'. The aged, like disease, are viewed routinely as a burden: to the economy and by implication, to our society at large, and increasingly even to the families which they raised and to which they belong.

But Noam Chomsky reminds us, "Social security is based on the assumption that we care about each other, that we have a communal responsibility to take care of people who can't take care of themselves, whether they're children or the elderly." He observes that in today's times, this principle "is considered subversive and has to be driven out of people's heads: the principle that you care about other people".

There is no doubt that a universal pension will cost a significant amount. At Rs. 2,000 a month, and covering 90% of all aged persons, it will amount to an annual public expenditure of Rs. 192,000 crore.

The people of India must decide if this is an unbearable burden. Or is it a long-neglected debt to the aged which must no longer remain unpaid?

Harsh Mander is a member of the National Advisory Council

The views expressed by the author are personal