The Senior Citizens Bill is an unimaginative way to deal with the injuries of economic growth
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
A recent survey of the elderly by the Agewell Research and Advocacy Centre in New Delhi found, unsurprisingly, that rapid industrialisation is forcing young people to leave older family members behind when they move for the sake of enhanced employment opportunities. About one-third of elderly people face ‘social, interpersonal and loneliness’ problems. The bleak conclusion of the survey is that many older people are alienated and isolated, unable to participate in family activities, and have inadequate social security provision.
This should come as no surprise to India, where more than one-third of the people no longer live in their place of birth. Although 700 million people have not moved, the mobility of 350 million or so represents an upheaval without precedent in history.
What is astonishing is a report that the government is considering the introduction of legislation that would compel children and grandchildren to take care of their elders: if they fail to do so, they may be jailed, and risk being disinherited from any property they might otherwise expect to inherit.
This ingenious response to the social dislocations generated by economic success is said to be the result of a year of ‘brainstorming’ over the delicate question of penal clauses. The social justice ministry has decided that, without a deterrent, such a law would be inoperable. The proposed bill is called the Parents and Senior Citizens (Welfare and Maintenance) Bill 2006, and will cover not only the aged, but all parents who have earning children, but are incapable of providing for themselves.
The absurd element in this law is the plan to set up tribunals in every district, where the aggrieved can complain about being neglected. This conjures up lurid prospects, not only of long lines of elderly people bringing their miscellaneous woes to some indifferent government functionary, but also the construction of vast new houses of correction for errant offspring, for which special punishment zones would probably have to be established in order to accommodate the numberless de-faulters of familial duty.
There is no doubt that the great majority of people in India—and indeed the rest of the world—continue to honour and revere those who gave them life. Indeed, much of the restless migratory spirit of the age stems from the commitment of a new generation to those they love: they go in search of improved opportunities precisely for the sake of their family, as the $25 billion annual remittances to India testify.
The idea that social traditions and customs can be embalmed in legislation, when everything else has been thrown into a state of flux and change, is nonsense
But the country is also littered with lives broken by the disruption of family ties and traditions. Old bondings and associations are indeed broken by the same chances, which beckon young people to greater self-realisation and fulfilment. The growth in old-age homes and the presence of so many elderly people in Delhi’s shelters for the homeless tell their own story. I sat not long ago in a jhuggi-jhopri settlement in West Delhi, to which many elderly persons had migrated in order to be with their children in their declining years. The tales I heard were not of mercy and compassion: the necessities of survival in poor communities made it vital for the elderly—too old to labour in fields and farms—to work, and many did so, as maidservants, construction workers and casual labourers. They told of grudging charity, resentment and rancour. Even when children went through the motions of providing minimum support, the emotional attachment was lacking, and many older people felt themselves disregarded and humiliated, though technically their basic needs were met.
The proposed legislation is disturbing, since it is not the first time that government has set in train economic policies of liberalisation and de-regulation, and then sought to repudiate the social consequences by enacting coercive laws against their victims. Indeed, the long procession of ragged and impoverished humanity, from degraded rural areas into slums and precarious city settlements, has also been set in train by policies which turn more and more people into trespassers, encroachers or squatters in their own land. Criminalised and abused, they, too, become the object of punitive laws, which compel them into a condition of perpetual urban nomadism. It seems that, not far beneath the surface of the liberalising thrust of economic policy, there lies a powerful authoritarian streak; perhaps a nostalgia for the days when government was indeed all-powerful, and controlled the people by means of licences, permits and regulations which stifled them at every turn and turned them into petitioners and pensioners of their rulers. The idea that social traditions and customs can be embalmed in legislation, when everything else has been thrown into a state of flux and change, is only a further demonstration of the curious estrangement from reality of ruling elites.
The growth of individualism, the fraying bonds of kinship and blood, decay of the joint and extended family are not moral failings, but are the inseparable companions of economic success. The neglected and abandoned elderly are only the generational counterpart of children hurt, mistreated, abused or exploited by sometimes desperate parents. If the government wishes to enforce its desire that all dependant people should be tended and cherished, it will have to come up with some more imaginative way of dealing with the injuries to which its own enthusiastic polices have made such a significant contribution.
—The author has been a teacher, social worker, lecturer, renowned dramatist and journalist. He has published about 30 books, including No-Nonsense Guide to World Poverty (2002) and Consuming Cultures, Globalization and Local Lives (2004)