Saturday, August 24, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Grey area gets larger

The percentage of the aged (60 years and above) in India was 5.6 per cent in 1950 and it is projected to be 14.4 per cent in 2025. Punjab is one of the states that is likely to feel the impact at the social and developmental level as its population greys rapidly over the next decade or two. Though the problem stares us in the face and has already started to cause social problems, precious little is being done to meet the challenge head on, says Alok Verma Grey area gets larger

EPRECIATING currencies, rising cost of living and poor return on savings have caused the security net for the senior citizens to almost vanish. In most developing countries, the "golden years" have turned out to be a mirage for them.

With decreasing mortality and increased life expectancy, the ageing population in Asia is without a protecting umbrella. In Asia, 5 per cent to the total population is considered aged — it is between 65 and 70 years— and nearly 80 per cent of this in developing countries is at risk of losing their shelter, may die of starvation or because of uncovered medical risks.

Economists and sociologists have offered various arguments in favour or against a safety net for the aged. Yet, the reality in developing countries is grim enough. Rapid urbanisation, migration of population and nuclear families are cited as a few of the many reasons.

Population ageing — the increase in the proportion of "older people", i.e. persons aged 60 and over, in the population — has become a prominent topic for studies on the implications of demographic change. Ageing has emerged as a global phenomenon in the wake of the now virtually universal decline in fertility and, to a lesser extent, of increases in life expectancy.

The theme is of immediate concern in developed countries, where ageing is already well advanced and will continue with serious consequences on the economy. It is also gaining importance in developing regions, where a number of countries have started worrying about the medium or long-term implications of the ongoing or incipient fertility decline for their age structures.

In the past 50 years, policymakers in India have made precious little progress towards providing a viable alternative to the family as the main source of income security for the elderly. Will recent government initiatives help India navigate its demographic transition in the 21st century?

Although India's population is young, in the last three decades life expectancy upon reaching age 60 has risen by 15 per cent and fertility rates have halved. The ratio of elderly to working-age people is expected to double in the next 30 years. Yet, as noted in a recent World Bank report titled, ‘India: The Challenge of Old Age Income Security', only 1 in 10 Indian workers participates in a pension scheme. There are two main types of pension schemes— a defined benefit pension scheme for government servants and those administered by the Employees' Provident Fund

Until recently, high growth of population was of attention to academic scholars and policymakers in India. Through governmental and non-governmental programmes and strategies the growth rate of Indian population has been brought under control. As a result, the age structure changed over the period. The share of child population declined while that of old population increased.

The percentage of old aged (60 years and above) was 5.6 in 1950 and it is projected to be 14.4 in 2025. The child population under nine years of age decreased from 27.7 per cent in 1950 and it will be 14 per cent in 2025 (United Nations). It means that by 2025, the proportion of older persons will exceed that of the child population. Percentage of older persons is increasing gradually while child population is decreasing rapidly. This situation, no doubt, raises challenges in economic planning and development.

Demographic estimates show that the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have higher percentage of aged population. The states of Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Gujarat will also be heading towards ageing of their population.

The reason for the state- wise disparity could possibly be attributed to the demographic diversity across the states. The crude birth rates of Kerala and Tamil Nadu are 9.1 and 5.2 points less than the national average, when Punjab has 3.7 points, Andhra Pradesh has 4.5 points, West Bengal has 3.2 points, Maharashtra has 2.4 points, Karnataka has 5.2 points and Gujarat has 1.5 points less than the national average. The other states have a crude birth rate higher than that of India, except Rajasthan and Orissa having CBR close to the national figures (International Institute for Population Sciences, 1995). Similar trend could be seen on the expectation of life at birth also. For example, the female expectation of life at birth for Kerala for 2020 will be 5.2 points higher than that of India.

The ageing process, though varying across the states, bring forth changes in the age pyramid that the pyramidal shape is giving way to broadening at the apex and narrowing of the base. It is this changing shape of the age pyramid that worries the policymakers and social workers. Constriction in age pyramid point to (i) increasing dependency (ii) reducing the labour force participation, and (iii) decreasing number of children.

Yet another factor exaggerating this issue is the potential employment situation existing in the country. The better working conditions in other countries prompt educated and skilled persons to out migrate. Due to the high rate of international migrations and also internal migrations from rural to urban area older persons are affected seriously as it decreases the number of adult members at home.

It was in response to this ageing and related isolation and destitution, institutions for older persons came into existence. They are broadly classified into (i) poor homes and (ii) old age homes. The old age homes are (a) paid homes, and (b) free homes. It is the Christian missionaries who started such institutions in various parts of India. But at present there are non-governmental organisations managing institutions for older persons. Institutions for poor, destitute and the left out older persons are definitely relevant. But institutions for older persons in general hinder tradition. It creates a social situation conducive for children to neglect their parents, or parents seeking to stay away from children and family surroundings.

So, institutionalisation of care for old persons needs rethinking. Ageing is inevitable and it has resulted from a healthy lifestyle. Old persons in institutions feel isolated and neglected. During their creative years, they strived for social change possible in the country, community and family. And thus it is their right to have a peaceful and relaxed retirement life.

Family is the place preferred by older persons. In families, the old lead a dignified life and make efforts at self-actualisation. They enjoy their independence and the prospective life of their children and grand children. It may also be noted that there are older persons still heading the household and supporting their kin.

The generation gap is wide that the economy has moved from primary to tertiary level due to the marked achievement in education.

However, it is social dynamics that changes the parent- child relationship and the family formation variables. The relations changed from a humanistic to a mechanistic style when families changed from joint to the nuclear set up. Joint families of traditional Indian set up respected aged members while nuclear families do not include older parent. This change in family structure isolated older persons or forced them to depend on some one else (may be the institutions) for physical protection. This paves the way not only for dedignifying of older persons but also for abuse.

It is the family care that needs to be enriched for a better social set up for the older persons, rather than propagating institutional care. The four components to be considered are the elderly, the young generation, the community and society. All the four component need to work to ensure family care. Older persons need to understand that the situation has changed from tehir days. They should be brought to a level wherein they accept and adapt to the changed world.

The blocks for the youth towards the care of older persons are physical, psychological and financial. The physical constraints are the need of the older person for personal support. The main psychological factor is that the aged don’t adjust fast to new conditions . In addition, the youth must be able to protect the older persons financially. Among these, the first factor needs a more careful analysis. A solution may be seeking the assistance of relatives or any other person.

Often, it is the community that keeps an eye over the do’s and don’ts of its members. Here in the case of care of older persons also, the community norms could be enriched to better family care. Gradually, a social set up could be created to have a family life for the older persons.

Relatively rapid population ageing in poorer countries implies that unless policies and social protection schemes specifically address issues of old age poverty, targets for poverty reduction will not be achieved. Studies of poverty in old age reveal its multi-dimensional nature, including its persistence and its inter generational impact.

Public policy on ageing in developing countries has tended to emphasize the welfare requirements of older populations, ignoring the wider dimensions of livelihoods in old age. The prevailing emphasis on pension schemes for formal sector workers and on individual contributions to pension funds, as outlined by the World Bank in 1994, excludes the majority of older people in poor countries who live and work outside the formal sector and lack the capacity to save. Basic non-contributory pension schemes, designed as an integral part of government poverty reduction programmes, are most likely to target the increasing numbers of poor older people and have an inter generational impact within their households.

According to the World Population Prospects report published by United Nations, over-65s comprised 5 per cent of the population in "less developed regions" as compared to 13.2 percent else where. As can be expected, the highest percentages in Asia belonged to the most industrialised countries such as Japan (15%), Hong Kong (9.6%), and Singapore (7.0%), while the demographic giants, China and India had a ratio of 6.8 per cent and 4.8 per cent respectively.

Myanmar, North Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam ranged between 4 to 5 per cent, while Sri Lanka and South Korea had ratios of 5.9 percent and 6.5 per cent, respectively. One of the lowest was Afghanistan with only 2.5 per cent, a stark indication of the consequences of the civil war. By 2025, at least seven Asian countries (China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore and Sri Lanka) are likely to have 10 per cent or more of their population above 65 years of age.

In India, as also in other countries in Asia, the young usually become responsible for the elderly, forming a sort of in-built culturally rooted system. Because Asian societies are still largely family - oriented, the population in the working age range (16 - 64 years) is the most likely supporters of the elderly. Sustained fertility declines and the growing trend towards the formation of nuclear families in several Asian countries have become sources of worry.

Taking Singapore as a case study, by 2030, the over-65s are expected to form about 18 per cent of the population, but the working proportion would have begun shrinking from 2010. On the other extreme is India with a billion plus population where 24 per cent of the population looks after the remaining 76 per cent and only about 70 million people pay income tax.

While the welfare of the aged of both sexes needs to be addressed by Asian governments, of greater concern is the plight of widows left behind in societies where the social status of women is still low, such as India and South Korea. In some parts of Indian society, widows are considered unlucky, or their in-laws may simply not want to be burdened with their care. Many make their way to compounds where other widows live, where they may stay until they die. This is a significant, though hidden, problem. In India, as elsewhere in the world, elderly women can be expected to out-number elderly men.

Ageing is already in a serious problem in Asia, if counted in number — though may not be in percentage terms— but, unfortunately, not enough thought is being given to it right now.