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No country for the old

Sixty-plus is India's fastest growing demographic. Yet, public policy largely ignores the elderly

Akshi Chawla | IndiaSpend 

No country for the old

Kisturi Devi, 62, lives with her two daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren in in Rajasthan. All three women are widowed. Since 2013, Devi has been receiving an old-age pension of Rs 500 per month — half the amount that would qualify her as living below the poverty line of Rs 32 per day in rural India.

Nearly one in 10 Indians is over 60 years old, a fact often lost amid the economic bombast of India’s ‘demographic dividend’.
Devi is among India’s 100 million elderly people, numerous enough to form one of the 15 most populous countries in the world. This number is set to grow at the fastest pace among all demographic groups—while India’s overall population is likely to grow by 55 per cent between 2000 and 2050, the corresponding figures for the 60+ and 80+ age groups are 326 per cent and 700 per cent.

Yet, as Devi’s case makes clear, the majority of India’s aged subsist on meagre support from the government. The family continues to be seen as the ‘normal’ site for the care of the elderly, even as factors such as decreasing family size, migration of the young for work and abuse within the family make this a less than ideal situation.

Many elderly people live alone–the majority of them women—and are easy targets of crime. Residential homes are not yet a viable alternative. Only the economically privileged can afford private homes, and government ones are few and far between.

The elderly in numbers

Roughly 9 per cent of India’s population is aged 60 years or more, as per Census figures from 2011, as opposed to 12 per cent globally. By 2050, the 60+ age group is expected to form 19 per cent of India’s population.

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 Kerala, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Haryana are the top five states where the elderly comprise 10 per cent or more of the population, while the north-eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram and Assam have the smallest proportion of people aged 60  or more.
Caring for the elderly is a Directive Principle of State Policy under Article 41 of the Constitution, which states: “The State shall, within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provision for securing the right to work, to education and to public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement, and in other cases of undeserved want.”

Meagre financial support

In Khanpatla village of Panchmahal district of of Gujarat, Ranchhodbhai, 65, and his wife Gangaben, 63, have been enrolled as beneficiaries under the state government’s old-age pension scheme since the last two years. This entitles them to Rs 400 each per month, but they said they have not received a pension for nearly nine months. This delay is not new, they said, and in any case it hardly covers their bare minimum survival needs.

The Indian government has been providing social pensions under the Social Assistance Programme since 1995. In 2007, the programme was reintroduced as the Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension Scheme (IGNOAPS) for elderly people who belong to a below-poverty-line household. The central government contributes Rs 200 per month towards pension for each person aged 60 years or above and Rs 500 per month for everyone aged 80 years and above. State governments are expected to supplement this with at least a matching sum.

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The draft Policy for Senior Citizens of 2011 recommended an amount of Rs 1,000 as monthly pension under IGNOAPS. Although the policy has not yet been finalised, some states have increased their contribution to comply with this recommendation. By and large, pensions in most states remain meagre, varying from Rs 200 in Assam and Nagaland to Rs 250 in Mizoram, Rs 400 in Bihar and Gujarat, and Rs 500 in Rajasthan and Punjab. Consequently, lakhs of elderly citizens live in penury.


An ongoing public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court demands a basic old-age pension of  Rs 2,000 per month. “This Rs 200 was fixed years ago and it has no relevance to the cost of living today,” Ashwani Kumar, former Union Minister of Law and Justice, who has filed the PIL, told IndiaSpend. 

In a survey by the socio-economic advocacy group Centre for Equity Studies, pension beneficiaries said amounts of Rs 1,600 to Rs 2,000 were “adequate”.  A study published in the HelpAge India-Research & Development Journal in 2013 had calculated that providing a pension of  Rs 2,000 to 90 percent of India’s elderly would cost 1.81 per cent of the GDP; a pension of Rs 1,000 would cost less than 1 per cent of the GDP.

As per the Social Assistance Programme website, millions of the elderly receive old-age pension. This makes them an attractive vote-bank during elections, when the pension amount becomes an important issue and finds mention in several election manifestos. Yet, despite successive elections, this wooing of the elderly voter has not translated into a dignified pension amount in a majority of Indian states.

Difficult to access

Not only are pensions small, the elderly also have to contend with ambiguous processes and unhelpful and rude staff. “My life as a citizen gets affected by the lowest level in the hierarchy I deal with,” Anupama Datta, director of Policy Research and Development at the non-profit HelpAge India, told IndiaSpend, adding that often sympathetic and well-meaning senior officials are unable to infuse the same attitude lower down in the system.

The residents of Gharaunda, an old-age home in Fatehpur Beri, Delhi, shared with IndiaSpend the many challenges they face when applying for a pension. Renuka, 71, who goes by her first name only, hails from Bihar. She wanted to enrol for the Delhi government’s old-age pension after she moved into Gharaunda but did not have local residential proof since all her earlier documents were from her native state. When she visited a government office to apply for local identity documents, she was turned away saying she did not need an identity proof “at her age”.

First Published: Sun, October 08 2017. 02:31 IST