There was a time when shashtipoorthi — a person turning 60 — was a big deal. Given that the retirement age for government employees was itself 55 years in most states, crossing 60 was considered a major milestone. Today, however, the fanfare around shashtipoorthi has diminished significantly.
The reason for this is obvious. A recent report by the ministry of statistics shows that India’s 60-plus population has jumped by 35.5 per cent, from 7.66 crore to 10.38 crore, between 2001 and 2011. This, even as the corresponding numbers in the zero-six years age group have, for the first time, registered an absolute decline from 16.38 crore to 15.88 crore. In three states — Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Goa — the total elderly population actually outnumbers children aged below six, as per Census 2011. One can expect at least three more states — Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh — to join this list when the next census is held in 2021.
The above phenomenon — a result of increasing longevity thanks to modern medical science and declining fertility because of family planning, along with a rising average marriage age — has huge social, economic and political implications. In the old days, when the joint family system reigned, there were enough children to take care of the elderly few who survived. But in today’s nuclear families, there aren’t too many to share the burden of looking after their aged fathers and mothers. That, in turn, is spawning old-age homes — a nascent industry that could turn into a veritable money-spinner just as private school education already is. Even for the medical profession, geriatrics may become as important as paediatrics. Politically, too, 10.38 crore people, whose numbers will keep rising, aren’t small. Unlike the 15.88 crore children, they all vote. A glimpse of the potential “vote-bank” the elderly represent was seen during the recent one rank, one pension agitation of ex-servicemen. And that may have been just a start.
Of course, there is nothing new to ageing societies. In countries such as Germany, Sweden and Japan, anywhere between a quarter to a third of the population is above 60 years old. India’s ratio, by comparison, is only 8.6 per cent. Moreover, India also has the advantage of an “economically active” population in the 15-59 age group, whose share has risen from 53.9 per cent to 60.3 per cent between 1981 and 2011. The workforce drawn from this segment can potentially earn the incomes to support both their children and the elderly. An environment that creates gainful employment for these men and women, and also enables them to save enough for their own retirement, is what public policy should aim at. Investments in economic infrastructure and human capital would be obvious components of such a strategy.