By Uma Joshi
INDIA is right at the middle of an extraordinary demographic transition. It is shifting from being a young country with high mortality and high fertility to reach the final stage of having a higher proportion of people of older and middle age groups. The combination of longevity with fewer children joining the population is leading to a rapid ageing of the population.
In absolute terms, there were 66.7 million elderly persons in the country in 1999 and this number went up to 77 million by 2001. The proportion of elderly persons in the country has risen from 6.76 per cent in 1999 to 7.1 per cent in 2001 and certainly, this has gone up further by the end of 2003. Projections indicate that the 60-plus population would cross the 100-million mark in 2013. Presently, the population of old people in India is the fourth highest in the world.
Of the 77 million elderly people in India today, about 90 per cent of these are from the unorganised sector, with 75 per cent living in rural areas. One-third of the elderly are stated to be living below the poverty line. While old age brings diminution of social roles for the aged women, most of them are subjected to social and economic marginalisation that leads to their being treated as a ‘burden?. Population surveys indicate that 10 to 15 per cent of the elderly have either children or do not have children living with them for different reasons.
What is more, the modern ways of urbanisation, education and exposure to lifestyles in developed countries are bringing changes in values and lifestyles of our younger generation. The worse aspect is that these changes are such that the society'sconcern and respect for the older persons? welfare have been relegated to the background, by and large. No wonder, senior citizens of the country are facing an identity crisis, perhaps in the worst form than ever before.
When turned down by one'sown kith and kin, life in the greying years becomes all the more intolerable and unbearable. Many suffer the agony in silence without letting the world know that their children have neglected them. About 12 per cent of India'sageing population has been officially declared as destitute.
It is high time that the government ensures the needs of the ageing population so that the elderly people are not left in the lurch and uncared for. All said and done, the life of elderly people in villages is far worse than that of their counterparts in urban areas. A larger part of the youth population in most villages has migrated to towns and they just do not bother for the welfare of their people in villages. Health care and medical facilities are also utterly lacking there.
It will also be useful to impress upon the aged the need to adjust to the changing circumstances and live harmoniously with the younger generation. No wonder, despite the materialistic comfort and psychological security provided to the aged, the twilight years of ageing and exhaustion are far from enjoyable. When turned down by one'sown kith and kin, life in the greying years becomes all the more intolerable and unbearable. Many suffer the agony in silence without letting the world know that their children have neglected them. About 12 per cent of India'sageing population has been officially declared as destitute and they are forced to live off the meagre pension they receive from the government.
To worsen matters, the older women greatly outnumber the older men. Today, with 55 per cent women above 60 years of age being widows, widowhood remains a major problem with the aged population. With women'slife expectancies being longer than that of men, widowhood for women is much more likely. It also means women losing their rights to the marital home.
How comforting it would be for the aged persons if the government was to set up a National Commission for older people in order that all problems and issues of the aged are taken into account while formulating policies and programmes. Moreover, it should provide a forum to them for redressal of grievances. The huge population of the aged in the country needs to be given its proper place in the society and only then could the country usher in and implement the concept of a ‘welfare state?.
A number of social security measures have to be undertaken by the government so that the aged feel secure on their own. The aged, let it be recognised, are a wealth of knowledge. They have experience and they are always available. What they need is a little recognition, love and care from the youngsters. Therefore, they should not be treated as a liability but as an asset to the family and the community. It is imperative to focus on human development by improving their life expectancy so that people live much longer than say, 60 years or so. But then, it will be much more necessary to enhance the quality of life in the extended years and to create a social environment in which the old people could live with dignity and complete satisfaction.
(The writer is a retired psychologist from Government of India.)