One day, Mathew Cherian, the chief executive of HelpAge India got a call at midnight at his home in New Delhi. A man had called from the posh colony of Vasant Vihar. Because balconies had glass enclosures, he could see that in the neighbouring house, a 40-year-old man was giving tight slaps to his father. Then he pushed the elderly gentleman against a glass table. As he fell on it, the glass broke. Shards penetrated the skin. He began bleeding. The son seemed drunk.
Cherian informed the police. They arrived at the house. But the father said he had fallen on the table by accident. So, the police could not take any action.
Later, Cherian and his colleagues met the old man. He gave a verbal complaint. “We reported it to the police and filed a case against the son,” says Cherian. The son was a businessman. The father also had his own business, but the son wanted the father to sign the ownership to him. “There was another son who lived abroad, and the father wanted to pass the ownership to both,” says Cherian.
Asked how middle-class children who are brought up with love and affection end up treating their parents so cruelly, Cherian says, “In today’s world, money and property are the big attractions. It’s a materialistic world. In most cases of abuse, it involves some land or property.”
Parents could be at fault too. They bring up children by pampering them and giving them what they want. “Children develop a sense of entitlement,” says Cherian. “They feel the parents should give everything to them. Schools don’t instil a sense of ethics and values.”
Another major problem is the destitution of the elderly poor. The problem is acute in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. In Orissa, the public distribution system has started functioning well.
But there is excellent news about Kerala. “It is the No 1 state in India in the way it has been treating its elderly,” says Cherian. “HelpAge organised a session at the Kerala Institute of Local Administration at Thrissur in December, 2019,” says Cherian. “To make it an age-friendly state, we had discussions with panchayats, kudumbashree units, and various NGOs. Genuine attempts are being made.”
As to why the state treats its elderly well, Cherian says it is because of the high literacy rate in Kerala. But Kerala is the foremost ageing state in India, at 13 percent of the population. “The government is aware of this, as per the recent economic review,” he says.
One problem for the elderly all over the country is that the young are migrating to urban areas in large numbers. “The migration in the last decade was between 140-175 million. I call it a great migration, like the movement of animals in the African Rift Valley in search of water. As a result, many elderly had to fend on their own,” says Cherian.
Some children send some money home, but the majority don’t. Among the elderly, the impact is even greater on widows and widowers. Once a partner has passed away, the other person feels isolated. There are very few families which take care of widows. Since widows rarely own property, the neglect is much worse. In Hindu tradition, there is a belief that a widow can bring bad luck to the family. “So, they are pushed out,” says Cherian. “In Vrindavan [Uttar Pradesh], widows are forced to eke out a living in the ashrams. They can also be subjected to sexual abuse by priests too because some of them are only 45 years of age.”
As for the widower, if he has some property, he may be able to hang on for a while. Of course, there is always the situation that if the widower lives too long, the children might get impatient and do something drastic.
To highlight all this, Cherian has written a book called Ageing and Poverty in India, which was released on June 15, World Elderly Abuse Awareness Day. “India will face a big crisis,” said Cherian. “The immediate trigger is the Covid-19 crisis. When we were moving around, we saw a lot of elderly people not getting their rations. Many of them could not even manage one meal a day.”
By 2026, the elderly population will be 176 million. To look after them, Cherian has suggested the following measures: A decent pension should be available to all. In Kerala, about 48 lakh are getting a pension of Rs 1,300 per month (Rs 1500 for the age group of 75 plus). But it is worse in other states.
In the book, Cherian writes: ‘The provision of Rs. 200 per month as old age pension mocks the Constitution and the dignity of old people who have contributed to the country. This amount provided is abysmally low and that, too, of the 108 million only 28.9 million receive any pension from the central government. This leaves out a sizeable population of about 40 million. A uniform universal pension of Rs. 3,000 per month for the elderly is recommended.’ The other measures include health and food security, freedom from abuse and age-related discrimination, apart from the creation of infrastructure and facilities.
Cherian says India needs to focus on the elderly as the 21st century is the century of older persons. “By 2050, India will be designated an old nation,” he says. “By then, 25 percent of the population will be over 60 years of age. The present demographic dividend of our young will be over. It is already over in many European countries and Japan, where senior citizens comprise 30 percent of the population. There will be more older people than the young.”