India is facing an elderly population 'time bomb' according to a United Nations report which revealed its number of old people will triple by 2050.
The report, by the United Nations Population Fund, found the number of over-60s will increase from around 100 million today to more than 300 million by 2050 and warned the government to prepare for the additional strain this will put on families and health and welfare services. It also predicted the number of over-80s will increase sevenfold.
Officials said they were particularly concerned about the impact on elderly women, who will outnumber men, and be left more vulnerable in Indian society.
The findings, contained in its Report on the Status of Elderly in Select States of India, have come as a surprise to the government which has focused its policies on high economic growth to meet the employment and training needs of the country's rapidly growing youth population.
The government's reforms are aimed at increasing foreign investment and rapidly developing its transport, health and education provision, including new towns, to meet the requirements of what it regards as a young population explosion.
India's soaring population is expected to increase from 1.2 billion today to above 1.6 billion by 2050 – by when it is expected to have overtaken China's ageing population to become the world's largest nation.
But while the government has focused on how to harness its surging young population to drive development, the UN report has revealed how it also faces dramatically increased spending on health and welfare services to care for its elderly. According to the report two-thirds of India's 100 million people over 60 suffered a chronic ailment in 2011. That number is expected to increase to more than 200 million by 2050.
The report warned that India's current hospital and welfare services are insufficient for the strain they will face as the pace of population ageing increases.
"These findings underline that with a growing elderly population in the country there is a need to strengthen geriatric care services in the existing public health system so that the increasing care demands of the elderly can be met," the report warned. It also said the government must increase the availability and take-up of welfare benefits by the elderly poor.
The authors said they believed most looked to their children to support them within India's extended 'joint families' but this will put greater demands on families, particularly when few have pensions.
Satya Narayana, senior UN national programme officer for India, said he was particularly concerned that elderly women will suffer most.
"Women in Indian society are vulnerable throughout their lifetime and that increases into their old age," he said.
One of the authors, Professor K.S James, head of the Population Research Centre at Bangalore's Institute for Social and Economic Change, said India's elderly will have to work longer and retire later.
"Like any other country ageing is a challenge and a problem. We need to make people work- whatever the age. If they are working that solves half the problem. We have to improve their skill levels, education and health, that's the key," he said.