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The elderly in India deserve the right to live with dignity

Successive governments in India have formulated many programmes and policies for the welfare of the elderly. In reality, the benefits do not reach the elderly. Many of them are forced to live alone or to move into old age homes to spend the rest of their lives.

opinion Updated: Feb 06, 2018 11:15 IST
elderly care,senior citizens,assisted suicide
Iravati Lavate, 79, and her husband Narayan, 86, wrote to the President of India, seeking permission for ‘doctor-assisted death’ (mercy killing or active euthanasia). The couple has made this unusual request fearing that they will fall terminally ill and will not be able to ‘contribute to society’(HT Photo)

Recently, a childless elderly couple, Iravati Lavate, 79, and Narayan, 86, wrote to the President of India, seeking permission for ‘doctor-assisted death’ (mercy killing or active euthanasia). The couple has made this unusual request fearing that it will fall terminally ill and will not be able to contribute to society.Despite having no major health problems, this couple decided to write to the President claiming that it has no children and hence nobody to live for. Is this an isolated incident or a general trend?

According to the 2011 census, the elderly population in India is enumerated at 104 million. Between 2001 and 2011, India added 2.7 million annually to its population of senior citizens. Assuming the same growth, India’s elderly population stands at 123 million in 2018. In other words, 1 out of 10 persons in India is a senior citizen aged 60 and above.The United Nations defines a society as aging once its proportion of those aged 65 and above crosses more than 7% of its total population. India,with an elderly population of 123 million, has already entered the list as one of the aging societies of the world.

The growth of the elderly population in India is a matter of great concern as these growth rates are much higher than that of the general population in most states. In Kerala, the population of children in the age group 0-9 declined whereas the population of those aged 80 years and above registered the highest growth rate.

Why does India’s elderly population grow faster than its general population? The reason is quite simple and obvious -- the improvement in human development. According to our estimates, both infant mortality rates and fertility rates have declined over the last three to four decades in almost all the districts in India. The parallel increase in life expectancy in India is celebrated as an indicator of successful development. However, the elderly who live longer, like Iravati and Narayan, consider this as a negative consequence of development that runs counter to their interests.

According to studies, close to 4% per cent of the elderly in the urban areas live alone and 3% live with non-relatives. Whether they have children or not, 15% of the elderly in both urban and rural areas live with their spouses, like the Mumbai couple. As fertility rates decline in many states, caregivers (children) are not available like before.

If the elderly couples, who are reasonably healthy, demand assisted suicide, we need to be even more concerned about the elderly who are bedridden or are with limited mobility. According to the 2014 round of the National Sample Survey, two million elderly persons in India are bedridden and another seven million are confined within their households. Who will take care of them during their sunset years? The issue of caring for the elderly,and ensuring their dignity at death, should thus receive immediate public attention. As the 86-year old Narayan pointed out in an interview, the right to live also includes the right to die with dignity.

Successive governments in India have formulated many programmes and policies for the welfare of the elderly. In reality, the benefits do not reach the elderly. Many of them are forced to live alone or to move into old age homes to spend the rest of their lives. Recently, social activists Baba Jadhav and Aruna Roy had written to the Prime Minister calling his attention to the depressing plight of the elderly in India and the need to give higher priority to the social security pension schemes. For instance, the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme has remained at a meagre Rs.200 per month for persons above 65 years and Rs.500 per month for persons above 80 years belonging to households below the poverty line.

A universal and comprehensive social security programme for the elderly is key. Local self-governments can formulate projects to identify all the elderly in their jurisdictions irrespective of their social and financial background. Years of economic progress and human development have improved the quality of lives and have added more years to the life expectancy of Indians. Our senior citizens should be able to enjoy these additional years.

S Irudaya Rajan is professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Feb 06, 2018 11:15 IST