As per the World Population Ageing Report 2019 released by the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Welfare, the elderly population (those aged 65 years and above) in India is expected to rise from 87,149,000 in 2019 to 225,428,000 in 2050. Consequently, in the same period the old-age dependency ratio is expected to double, from 11% in 2019 to 22.5% in 2050, and the economic dependency ratio from 14.1% to 27.7%.
Several studies (HelpAge India, Longitudinal Ageing Study in India, United Nations Population Fund) predicted that by 2050 the elderly would form 20% of India’s population. Thus, India will be in a position similar to developed countries like Japan that already has a quarter of its population belongs to the elderly category. It is a wicked problem that needs to be addressed. Primarily, the causes of worry are related to the mental and physical well-being of the elderly. The requirements are therefore of ensuring adequate social security mechanisms for ensuring a healthy old age and providing employment opportunities to the elderly as the life expectancies are also on a rise.
The Expectations from the Family
The culture and tradition of Indian society expect that the elderly parents would be cared for by their children. The idea has always been that care for the parents is a form of repayment on part of the children for the care that had been provided to them during their childhood. This has been formalized through the enactment of The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens (Amendment) Bill 2019, which legally requires children to pay a monetary amount to their parents as decided by a Tribunal set up by the respective state governments. The Tribunal decides this amount by taking into account the standard of living and earnings of the elderly citizen as well as that of the earnings of the children.
The question is how viable such an expectation and mechanism will be in the long run. Firstly, it is unlikely that there would be many cases that would be presented to the Tribunal given the stigma that would be associated with taking such a step. Secondly, there is the question of whether the children, with or without, the Tribunal would have the capacity to provide for the elderly in the wake of rising consumerism, high education costs for their children, and the rise of the nuclear family. Further, there has been a constant decline in the Total Fertility Rate of the country with some states, especially in Southern India already having fertility rates well below the replacement level of 2.1 as of 2016 as per NITI Aayog (replacement of the Planning Commission of India since 2015). Thus, there are fewer children to share the burden of elderly care unlike before and the responsibility in many cases falls upon an only child as is being seen in the case of China presently.
This is compounded by the fact that employment is hardly permanent or regular anymore and contract work and ‘gigs’ are the predominant form of employment that are by definition precarious in nature. This makes it difficult for the present generation of working adults to save or invest for the future. Currently, less than half the workers in the informal sector, where a vast majority of Indians are still employed, have access to any social security measure. So, for the present workers, there seem to be limited options for protection in old age.
What is Being Done Presently?
Some government-run schemes provide for insurance specifically for the elderly usually handled by the state-owned Life Insurance Corporation of India. The premium for these schemes ranges from Rs 1,000 to Rs 1.5 million. The Senior Citizen’s Saving Scheme helps provide a government-backed savings instrument to citizens aged 60 and above. The Ministry of Rural Development also runs an assistance scheme for the elderly people living under the poverty line that they do not require any contributions by the beneficiary, however, it provides a paltry sum of Rs 200 (about $3) or Rs 500 (about $7) monthly depending on age. Multiple schemes are depending on the various eligibilities but they do not operate a central scheme, and also people do not know about those services and often face bureaucratic hurdles which results limited accessibility to those services.
The government had started the National Pension Scheme for the benefit of the current working population, so they can plan for retirement. Initially, this scheme was made available for the Central Government employees compulsorily and later extended to all citizens of India between the ages of 18 to 65 voluntarily. The subscribers have the freedom to select the Pension funds and patterns of investment. This is a step in the right direction which has the potential to provide adequate savings that are also market linked for the future of the present working population. However, it is a move away from the welfare state that India had been for long indicating that the march of neo-liberalism is on the verge of completion which brings with it its’ own kinds of complexities.
Internationally, The Madrid International Plan on Ageing of 2002 had attempted to provide a roadmap for the direction that has to be taken for the protection of the elderly. The Plan required the governments to focus on discrimination and decision making, health, work and pension, and supportive environments. Whatever little has been provided so far has been in the form of scattered schemes that do not cover a lot of the given areas. The gap has usually been filled by charitable organizations and NGOs. There are few mechanisms to focus specifically on elderly abuse other than the aforementioned law and there are barely any State-run institutions for elderly care.
This is not a problem of India alone but is a trend in many Asian countries largely placed within a similar cultural context. The World Population Report 2019 mentioned earlier has further highlighted the fact that while in North America and Europe private transfers play a minimal role in support of the elderly and less than 10% of the consumption is funded by labour incomes, in Asia nearly a fourth of elderly consumption is funded by private transfers and labour income plays a substantial role in support of elderly consumption nearly as much as one-third in Singapore.
The Way Forward
The National Policy on Older Persons was announced in 1999 and has not been updated since then. So, an integrated approach and a unified policy with cooperation between Central and State governments is a matter of urgency and we require a new updated policy to deal with the new economic and social conditions.
A universal social security program is therefore the need of the hour. Rather than being spread all over the place, we need a system that brings different options under one roof, implemented by one body. The State needs to acknowledge the changing conditions in the country and realize that family-based care cannot be the only option and neither can elderly care be left completely in the hands of private entities. There needs to be better protection for the informal and contract workers. We need initiatives to create more permanent jobs so that more workers come under formal social security programs of the private sector. The present Employee Provident Fund scheme is a baby step in that direction. Further, in cases of contract workers, more onus needs to be put on the employer to provide for the enrolment of the workers in these schemes.
Further, the spending on health infrastructure needs to be greatly enhanced. In the wake of COVID-19, we are seeing a complete collapse of the entire health system, not just the public but even the private institutes faced severe constraints. This would be one step in providing universal health care since again, health care insurance is also largely limited to formal sector employees. Phased implementation should be possible.
Lastly, there need to be opportunities for elderly employment as life expectancies increase. This could be done similarly to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Scheme that provides for 100 days guaranteed employment for those in rural areas but this should be exclusively for the elderly in domains where they could contribute and the work is not physically exhausting for them. Participation in State provided care-work and in cooking for Mid-Day meals at schools is also an option.
The aging of the population and high dependency ratios are, of course, something beyond our control. But it is also something that we are aware of well in advance, therefore it is our imperative to be adequately equipped to deal with such an upcoming scenario and enable a comfortable and dignified life for what is soon to be nearly a fifth of the population.