BY: Charan Singh and S.J.S. Swamidoss
While the new government has spoken about taking policy measures to address the needs of India’s young population, nearly 10 crore of the elderly — citizens above 60 years of age — are generally neglected in policymaking. The latest Census data report that 15 per cent of the elderly live alone, mainly because of the nuclearisation of the family. As longevity is increasing and women tend to live longer than men, the proportion of women staying alone is significantly large: three-fourths of the elderly, or about one crore of elderly women, live alone. In Tamil Nadu, one in 11 of those above 60 lives alone. This trend has disturbing implications for the nutrition and health of the elderly and should be a cause for concern.
In India, on average, nearly 2 per cent of the elderly are confined to the bed and 5 per cent confined to the home. The ratio for elderly women is much higher. There is evidence to suggest that in old age, isolation and abandonment has been increasing, especially because of the nuclearisation of the family, urbanisation and migration of workers, and persistent poverty. The real problem is the inability of old people to derive benefits from various poverty alleviation programmes, including food security schemes in place. This problem exists in both rural and urban areas.
The elderly too require secure food, shelter and clothing to survive in a dignified way. The Central and state governments have made some effort to provide for old-age care. A number of schemes, like integrated programmes for an older person, have been implemented since 1992 and the national policy on older persons was announced in January 1999. These schemes aim to provide financial and food security, healthcare, shelter and other means to the elderly to improve their quality of life. Various government ministries, like the railways, rural development and finance, also offer special concessions to the elderly. But a 2011 survey by the United Nations Population Fund revealed that the utilisation of these schemes, especially those designed for BPL households, was abysmally low.
In view of the fact that many of the elderly live alone and some have been abandoned by their families and neglected by their children, they suffer near starvation. In many a household, feeding the elderly is never a priority and they often get only the residual food.
There are a number of old people who cannot cook their own meals because they are bedridden or weakened by age or don’t possess the utensils to cook due to acute poverty. These numbers are not small, as revealed in a private survey conducted in a few villages in Tamil Nadu around Chennai; the average numbers of such destitute elderly range between 10-20 per village. In a country of six lakh villages, one can assume that about 90 lakh elderly regularly suffer due to a lack of food.
The Narendra Modi government could consider a daily midday meal scheme for such people. To administer the scheme, various options are available — the government could do it on its own or seek a public-private partnership. This can be covered under the private sector’s corporate social responsibility burden. In India, more than 5,000 companies are listed on the stock exchange and there are just about 350 districts. The scheme can be initially piloted in a few districts in every state and if successful, it can be scaled up. The scheme could ensure that one square meal per day is available to the elderly.
In Tamil Nadu, where the scheme is being privately run by an NGO, many elderly are benefitting, beaming with self-assurance, and some are recovering from withdrawal symptoms. The organisers of the voluntary scheme operating in 30 villages collect Rs 400 per month from donors to feed one old person with a noon-meal every day. With this taken as benchmark expenditure, annual expenditure for implementing a scheme to feed one good meal to 90 lakh elderly per year would amount to Rs 4,320 crore.
The objective of this scheme is to ensure that the elderly in the country are able to procure food in a dignified manner. Once the infrastructure has been established, the supply chain of this facility can be used for the distribution of select medicines and even clothes to the bedridden elderly. This could give a new meaning to “welfare state”.
Singh is RBI Chair professor of economics, IIM Bangalore. Swamidoss is former director, research department, RBI and founder of the noon-meal scheme for the elderly destitute in Tamil Nadu. Views are personal