On September 4, the Lok Sabha passed the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority Bill. In a surprising show of unity, Indian legislators across the political divide consented to the Bill being passed almost eight years after it was initially tabled in Parliament by the previous government. This reform push is welcome but it throws up numerous questions about the targeted audience of the Bill; senior citizens or to-be senior citizens who have often been neglected in public discourse. According to the 2011 Census, senior citizens (aged 60 and above) accounted for 8.4 per cent of the population, an increase of one percentage point over 2001, meaning an addition of almost 27 million elderly people over the decade. The total population of senior citizens is expected to increase to 320 million by 2050. In addition, the number of ageing people in some of the states is almost equivalent to the total number of elderly people in some Scandinavian countries. Adding to this is the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) rate. Over nine states have a TFR of more than 2.1, which indicates an increase in the median age of the population now and in the future. All these figures indicate that the elderly population is bound to increase and the country has to do something about it in order to provide the care that is required. How can the state help? One key aspect is providing robust infrastructure for the elderly in public places and a sound investment in protecting senior citizens. According to the Union Budget for 2012-13, the investment for senior citizens has been around Rs 40 crore and this includes schemes such as Assistance to Voluntary Organisations for Old Age Homes and Construction of Old Age Homes for Indigent Senior Citizens. This sum appears meagre when compared to the investment in other emerging countries across the world including China and Brazil. In 2013-14, China is planning to set aside $160 million for rural senior health care. This is more than four times the investment that India contributes to its infrastructure for senior citizens. Experts believe that there must be a concerted attempt to improve the spending on senior citizens to more than Rs 100 crore within the next couple of years. This would help provide the financial muscle needed for changes to trickle down to the senior citizen on the street. In addition, it would provide the state the incentive to produce senior citizen-friendly buildings in public places, especially at railway stations and bus stations. The city state of Singapore, for instance, plans to invest more than $400 million for senior citizen-friendly nursing centres and buildings by 2016 even though their population is just over six million. Even though the Rs 100-crore target is surely not enough, it would be a good start.
Besides investment, there has to be a concerted effort in creating a sense of awareness among the public and policymakers to make senior citizens an integral part of their discourse. A glance at public policies for the elderly in India would provide a pretty mundane and rather status quo picture. A case in point is the recently initiated National Council for Senior Citizens (http://socialjustice.nic.in/pdf/ncsrc.pdf). This was initiated as part of the National Senior Citizen Plan in 2011 and was supposed to be one of the implementable initiatives. One look at the National Council would show that beyond the bureaucratic charade, there doesn't seem to be much emphasis on specifics in terms of the vision or the action plan. There could be an initiative by a group of young legislators, much like the fight against malnutrition in India, to address and contribute to such councils and help senior citizens. Much like other emerging countries, this would help bring the issue to the fore if dynamic legislators were an integral part of the governance process. This would also steer the public discourse towards a more vibrant senior citizenry with the youth at the epicentre of the movement. At the core of senior citizen empowerment lies a strong connect with the youth in both attitude and involvement. This is a point that has been largely overlooked in countries such as India and China. A new law in China, "The Elderly Rights Law", makes it mandatory for children to visit their parents every year for a specific number of times. This rule of law has created controversy and it is precisely the issue India needs to avoid. The ability to care for the elderly should come not by force but through soft power and a greater connect with the youth. In a recent survey, most youngsters seem unaware of the challenges faced by the elderly in society. There has to be a robust campaign headed by prominent personalities to drive home the message of serving the elderly. One needs to take cues from successful campaigns such as the successful polio eradication campaign to drive home the message to young India on the state of the elderly in India. This could create a situation in which the "grandchildren" might be the catalyst in saving the "grandparents" since the sociological impact of the grandchildren could be significant over how the father or mother responds to such a situation. With the old age dependency ratio increasing to 28.2 per cent in 2050, the awareness needs to be bottom-up through young people reaching out and assisting the elderly through systems supported by the state. In retrospect, it is imperative that India acknowledges that much needs to be done to serve its senior citizens. Most of all, everyone needs to understand that senior citizens are the other side of the demographic dividend; a side that is often neglected but needs to be protected like crown jewels.
The author is a journalist. He can be contacted at http://www.srirambala.in or email@example.com Twitter: @Sriram316