October 10, 2014 12:45:48 am
The greying of India began almost two decades ago, when migration became commonplace and the old certainties of the joint family and joint landholdings unravelled. Migrants relocating to domestic and international job markets left behind elderly parents living alone. The current official figure is close to 50 lakh and the burden of old age is compounded by a gender angle: almost three quarters of elderly people living alone are women, most of them in rural areas. These figures ignore the elderly who are grudgingly tolerated by their families and have poor access to alternative support structures, including government schemes.
This data from the 2011 Census reveals the dark side of the demographic dividend which India counts on to break the cycle of poverty. Lack of access to schemes and services may owe to purely physical constraints — the ability to collect state-sponsored pensions requires mobility, which the elderly may not have. Besides, benefits are often insignificant. For instance, the schemes under the National Social Assistance Programme, launched in 1995, are restricted to the elderly, widows and the disabled below the poverty line. Even if states offer matching sums, benefits barely reach four figures. Healthcare costs escalate by orders of magnitude with age, and this amount is clearly insufficient.
Apart from economic implications, ageing is associated with intangible damage — loss of status and peer community, and estrangement from society. Artificial communities of the elderly can replace the organic communities they were born into, but they cannot be operated without material support from the youth who represent the demographic dividend, via taxes, voluntary action or philanthropy. Senior communities, assisted living and support groups for those who choose to live alone cannot meet even a fraction of future demand. Besides, given that the burden is rural, the majority of elderly women would find them unaffordable or unreachable. The elderly need a security net — a web of support and assistance in accessing it. Though government started to weave that web long ago, it is still full of holes and unless the real beneficiaries of development are involved — the demographic dividend that we like to hype at home and sell overseas — it cannot possibly be made whole.
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