The Assam government gave us an opportunity earlier this week to examine the way we treat our elders. In his Budget presentation, the state’s finance minister said a law would be enacted to dock a government employee’s pay if he or she was neglecting the care of aged parents. This may be little more than legislative grandstanding, since the subject lends itself well to easy sentimentality and allows regimes to advertise their touchy-feely credentials. Our view on senior citizens harks back to the Ramayana legend of Shravan, who carried his old parents in a basket on a pilgrimage to 40 holy places.
The Assam government’s tender feelings for the aged are welcome, but there is already a national law called the Maintenance of Parents and Senior Citizens Act of 2007. Its sweeping provisions include making adult children responsible for paying maintenance to parents and grandparents, setting up a Maintenance Tribunal for the elderly, and homes for the aged in every district.
But compliance has been pathetic. The law itself is so obscure that it was not until 2011 that the first petition was filed before the Tribunal. And there are no more than 1,000 old-age homes across India. Why? Because our approach towards the elderly is sentimental not substantial. Like all our welfare schemes—for women, the jobless or the aged—we prefer doling out giveaways rather than enabling them.
Why don’t we approach the problem from the perspective of giving senior citizens an independent retired life? Or tweak employment practices to remove age discrimination? Why not free healthcare to the elderly? Our Constitution bars discrimination on the basis of race, gender, faith. But it does not mention age. As we celebrate the Demographic Dividend, we forget it has been used as licence to weed out older employees. A good question to ask our bleeding heart governments is: why are there are so few 50-year-olds in our corporate companies?