Indien Years of sunset
Some elderly Indians lead independent and secure lives, but most live in poverty and suffer abuse and neglect
When he retired at the age of 65, Mani, who is now 80, had savings and investments and also owned real estate in a busy district in Mumbai, which is the business capital of India. Mani now lives with his wife in a senior citizens home. Jankabai, a 65-year-old domestic worker, is at the other end of the retirement spectrum in India. She continues to work hard, despite the fact that her body sometimes can’t handle the strain. After she retires at some point, she will live off her scant savings, which will eventually dry up. She currently lives with her son and his family, of course, but having to rely on relatives when you’re old also has its drawbacks. “In India, the elderly depend heavily on the younger generation, especially in the poorest families,” says Sheilu Srinivasan, founder and president of the Dignity Foundation, which helps seniors live dignified lives. “Old people in slums and in poor rural areas receive virtually no government assistance and have no savings of their own.”
India’s cultural tradition stipulates that the elderly are to be treated with reverence. Family ties are strong and the provision of financial support from relatives is a given.
However, these values are being weakened by increased urbanization. The fact that only 12 percent of the working population is eligible to claim a pension is therefore becoming a problem. In general, 1.2 billion people in India lack a comprehensive social security system.
Larger companies usually have pension programs for their employees. “Workers in unorganized sectors are not as well off,” says Vish Iyer, Vice President and Global Head of Legal and Corporate Affairs at Tata Consultancy Services. “Such workers are day laborers and don’t have the financial flexibility to save for retirement.” The problem is that this “unorganized sector” consisting of casual workers and small entrepreneurs is larger in India than virtually anywhere else in the world.
This problem is offset somewhat by the fact that medical treatment at government hospitals is free, although patients do have to pay for medications. “India also has around 5,000 free retirement homes, most of which are run by religious groups,” says Srinivasan. “However, the residents of these homes are often neglected and at the mercy of incompetent managers and staff.” The proportion of old people among the population is much lower in India than in the rich industrialized countries. However, because of India’s rapid population growth, the absolute number of people over 60 is expected to rise from 100 million today to 152 million in 2050. In any case, one out of eight people over the age of 60 worldwide lives in India.
The economic situation is better for India’s middle class, whose members are able to obtain loans at favorable terms for purchasing apartments and homes, which can be used as retirement investments. However, older members of the middle class complain that their materialistic children often take advantage of them by forcing them to sign over ownership of their homes. “We’ve actually set up a hotline for such cases and offer affected seniors legal assistance,” says Srinivasan.
India needs to implement a new political program for the elderly. It should focus not only on financial security but also on socio-psychological aspects, health, and housing.
Usha Munshi, Mumbai