Govt ignoring our fast-ageing population 

Nantoo Banerjee

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t may seem odd that India’s nearly-150-million 60-plus-year-old population, generally politically active, although not always quite vocal, is among the country’s most neglected by society and the government. There is no worthwhile social security for the aged. A small section lives on income from savings, a large part of which is routinely spent on doctors and medicines that come under no insurance cover. A still smaller section tries to live on pension. They are mostly retired public servants and teachers. Industrial pensions are small and generally fixed. The minimum pension for a retired industrial worker, fixed by the government, is farcically low at only Rs1,000 per month.

Census analysis puts life expectancy of those above 60 years at an average remaining length of about 18 years (16.9 years for males and 19 for females) and for those at 70, it is less than 12 years (10.9 years for males and 12.3 for females). Crime against the old, often by next-of-kin, and others, including servants, thieves and tenants, is continuously rising, mainly because of social neglect.

The government’s taxation department treats the self-supporting old, living on pension or interest incomes on savings or rental income, more shabbily than other assessees. Until age 80, they are forced to pay the same rates of taxes on their income as others, offering little relief on their rising medical bills and other age-related burdens. For instance, a chronic, old-aged diabetic may be spending Rs10,000 or more per month on medicines, insulin injections, daily blood sugar measures and routine quarterly tests, including retinopathy, neuropathy, nephropathy and cardiac conditions that attract no deduction in his or her tax computation.

Considering the fact that life expectancy at age 70 is less than 12 years, the government should have spared this category entirely from individual income tax, or reduced it substantially at a flat rate of 5% at source. Adequate social security benefits could have been offered to those issueless, or having no support from others. The constitutional ‘right to live’ becomes meaningless for the old in the absence of societal and governmental care and compassion.

Surprisingly, few in government and political life have ever assessed the value of goodwill from the old, who rarely miss an election as they have nothing more worthwhile to perform in the management of their state and country. A few have assessed what the old think of the elections and candidates and how they influence the minds of younger ones.

It may be interesting that the old are increasingly becoming a strong new block in the country’s electoral system from panchayats to Parliament. The number is steadily growing, as also their disenchantment with the governmental system that tends to consider them as a useless spent force. A report released by the UN Population Fund and HelpAge India suggests that the number of elderly persons is expected to grow to 173 million by 2026. Both the share and size of the elderly population is increasing over time. From 5.6% of the population in 1961, the proportion of the old increased to 8.6% in 2011. It was 8.2% for males and 9% for females. About 71% of the elderly population lived in rural areas, while 29% lived in urban areas.

Kerala showed the highest life expectancy at birth, followed by Maharashtra and Punjab, according to the SRS Report, 2009-’13. The most interesting aspect of the report mentions a high literacy rate among the elderly in India. While the average adult illiteracy rate in India is as high as 15%, literates among the elderly increased from 27% in 1991 to 44% in 2011. The literacy rate is expected to surpass 60% post-2021 Census.

Officialdom may not know that not many of the country’s elderly population is even aware that there exists a full-fledged department in the government called the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. The department is hardly in the news for its effort to ensure equitable treatment to such sections of society which has suffered social inequalities, exploitation, discrimination and injustice. On paper, the ministry has a Social Defence Division, which is supposed to cater mainly to the requirements of senior citizens, besides victims of alcoholism and substance abuse, transgenders and beggars/destitutes.

The ministry is supposed to develop and implement Acts, policies and programmes for senior citizens’ welfare in collaboration with state governments and Union Territory administrations to “ensure that senior citizens may lead a secure, dignified and productive life”. Few in the government care what the ministry does in practice. The country’s growing elderly population continues to be among the most neglected and exploited. Population ageing may be a global phenomenon, but nowhere in well-governed countries do the elderly face such social and government neglect and exploitation as in India.

(The author is a senior journalist)