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Too old to work, too young to die

India’s aged population is currently the second largest in the world, but the living conditions and social status of its elderly are fast deteriorating. Read on...

india Updated: Nov 19, 2007 01:27 IST
Vipul Mudgal

If India’s unique demography makes it go younger until 2025, what happens to its aged population? In a rapidly ageing world, elderly India too is set to explode. Our population above 60 years of age is projected to go up from 77 million in 2001 to 177 million by 2025.

Until 2040, India will be among the youngest countries in the world, says the UN World Population Ageing Report, 2003. India’s proportion of people above 60 years would go up from 7.5 per cent now to 12.5 per cent in 2025, but this will still be far below the developed world’s projected average of 28.2 per cent. To India’s advantage, its dependency ratio (the burden of non-working people to be borne by the working population) is lower than the rest of the world but its successive generations still have to carry a bigger burden than the previous ones.

The real challenge
A growing elderly population signifies longevity, which is an achievement rather than a problem. The real catch is that society’s kinships and welfare systems, which provide dignity to the elderly, are crumbling. With fewer than 30 per cent old people financially independent, cases of emotional, economic and even physical abuse are mounting. According to the National Family Health Survey, incrementally more elderly people are falling victim to almost all categories of diseases. Worse still, we don’t even recognize the crisis. A 2007 survey by the AARP Global Ageing Programme reveals only six per cent of India’s opinion leaders consider ageing as a priority issue.

Traditional Indian families put considerable kin and community pressure on adult children to treat their parents well. But these values are fast eroding with more young people migrating, more women working and couples opting for lesser children. This is causing a gradual lowering of social status of the elderly. The trend is likely to continue and by 2050, every three working Indians may have to care for one elderly person as compared to eight working people right now, says Prakash Bhattacharya in a 2005 paper on implications of ageing.

A matter of policy options
Population economist P N Maribhatt believes that until 2025, India must do whatever it takes to improve its labour productivity to best exploit its ‘demographic bonus’ (where the growth rate of the working population exceeds that of the total population). Our failure to harness this dividend is certain to expand unemployment and ‘its associated social evils,’ he warns in a recent paper.

WHO and Helpage International advocate an integrated planning where age care is included in an overall development strategy. WHO’s 2007 global guide for age friendly cities treats our world as a growing mega city where half the population has already moved. Since the cities are central to cultural, social and economic activities, it calls for integrated urban planning aimed at providing an ‘enabling living environment to compensate for physical and social changes associated with ageing.’