Traditional family structures are changing in South Asia. In today’s world, myriad economic opportunities exist in urban areas, and significant rural-to-urban migration supports that fact. But what this also means is that the shape of the multigenerational family is shifting towards a more nuclear structure: the latest statistics show that less than 40% of families in India are “joint” or multigenerational. Where previous generations could fully rely on living with their children or grandchildren to look after them in their old age, that is not necessarily the norm today. In the rural areas of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, young people move to urban hubs in their home countries or abroad to find employment and better their earning prospects. Though children still support their elders, a rising trend is that elderly family members are left behind and must take care of themselves. Some may choose to stay in their home villages, but this may not be possible. As their children move away, the elderly are forced to make the hard decision to also make the move to an urban center for their financial and social securities.
“Children are moving to cities for their job opportunities and leaving the elderly behind,” said Sheilu Sreenivasan, Founder and President of Dignity Foundation, a Mumbai-based organization working for the rights of senior citizens, in a July 2011 article. “For the first time senior citizens have to fend for themselves.”
Perspective on Senior Citizenry
The latest World Bank statistics show that the world’s elderly population has been steadily increasing since 1948. Declining fertility rates and increased life expectancy are behind this growth. In 1950, the global elderly population—defined as persons of 60 years and older—was 251 million and increased to 448 million in 1990. It is projected that by 2025, the number of elderly will increase by 146% to 1.25 billion worldwide.
This increase will be concentrated in Asia, particularly South Asia. An October 2011 article on Dawn.com notes: “South Asia will experience a dramatic increase in its elderly population by nearly nine times between 2010 and 2025 when life expectancy will increase to 75 years for men and 82 years for women.” Bangladesh will see an 8% growth rate in people over the age of 60 by 2020, 12% growth by 2035 and 17% by 2050. India has close to 89 million elderly, and this number is expected to double by 2020 and nearly triple by 2050. Nepal has seen its elderly population growing faster than the annual population growth rate of 2.3% at an average of 3.39% between 1991 and 2001, with 1.5 million elderly people today. In Pakistan, there are 7.2 million elderly people – near 4% of the population and rapidly moving towards 10%. It is predicted that by the next decade, the elderly’s numbers will comprise 15% of the total Pakistani population.
In the West, institutions and systems have long been in place to support the elderly. The story is quite different in South Asia: India and Bangladesh may respectively claim the second- and third-largest populations of poor elderly people in the world, but governments in both countries spend less than 0.5% of their GDPs on social pensions that benefit less than 20% of people over the age of 60.
In a study by HelpAge International, a not-for-profit working to protect the rights of the elderly and provide helpful interventions, it was found that approximately 76% of elderly Bangladeshis are excluded from government support and social protection. Bangladesh’s Ministry of Social Welfare provides an Old Age Allowance, a program that gives US$3.97 per month to elderly women over the age of 62 and elderly men over the age of 65 — just enough to buy a month’s ration of rice. The Ministry notes that 2.4 million people receive the allowance and that the program costs the government more than US$11bn per year. Mustafiz Rahman, a researcher, has said: “The selection process for the allowance is flawed, and there is nepotism, inefficiency and a lack of accountability that plague the system. The government needs to be more transparent in disbursing payments to real old people.”
Over the last decade, the Government of Nepal has taken more assertive action to indoctrinate the rights of the elderly. Most recently in 2009, the government formed the Senior Citizens Regulation 2065 to ensure the social security of Nepal’s senior citizens vis à vis relevant policies and programs such as the Senior Citizens Policy and Working Policy 2058, the National Action Plan for Senior Citizens 2062 and the Senior Citizens Act 2063. The UN’s International Conference on Population and Development has recommended that the Nepalese government further develop social security systems to promote greater equity for those persons that support senior citizens thereby encouraging them to live in “multigenerational families.”
While Bangladesh and Nepal have put social safety nets in place for the elderly – however imperfect – Pakistan has none. There is no retirement age or benefits for citizens, regardless of age. This void of social safety nets for the elderly can be attributed to the fact that until the last 30 years, the lifespan for an average Pakistani was less than 60 years. Now, people are living longer and have become more visible in society.
It is important to note two facts. One is that there is a dearth of data that illustrates the population of the poor elderly in urban areas. The second is that none of the three aforementioned countries’ governments sponsor programs targeting senior citizens in the urban context. Even NGOs working in these regions are not doing enough, according to an IRIN Asia article.
India’s National Policy on Older Persons
To further augment the constitutional rights of the elderly in India, in 1999, the Government of India announced its National Policy on Older Persons, in pursuit of a UN General Assembly Resolution to observe 1999 as the International Year of Older Persons. One of the policy’s target groups, the rural poor, also targets the urban poor since there is significant overlap of the two groups. The government needs to find a way to help this demographic, both when the rural, poor elderly reach urban hubs and, more preventively, before they do so when they are in their home villages. Overall, the policy is meant to support the welfare of the elderly with benefits like extra interest savings, income tax relief, medical benefits, pensions and travel concessions, among others. Although some percentage of India’s elderly is able to access these benefits, it is not enough: convoluted bureaucracy, inconvenient geography, lack of information and low literacy are significant barriers for the poor to access these benefits.
In light of the failures presented by the national policy, a new National Policy on Older Persons will be unveiled in India soon. The new, updated policy will be based on the Draft National Policy on Senior Citizens created by the Union Minister for Social Justice and Social Welfare. The draft policy imagines the formation of a Department of Senior Citizens that would operate at the state and federal levels. Its areas of interventions are income security, the pension scheme, public distribution systems, income tax, microcredit, healthcare, safety and security, housing, livelihoods, welfare, disaster management and “multigenerational bonding.” For example, the draft policy recommends extending the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme to all seniors living below the poverty line (BPL) with a monthly pension of INR1,000 (~US$22). Senior citizens would also be privy to an additional pension in the case of disability and loss of adult children. Another example is ensuring that the public distribution system reaches out to all BPL senior citizens.
Urban Life: Old and Alone
Despite the respect and near reverence bestowed on the elderly as mandated by South Asian traditions, the elderly have become more isolated and marginalized in society. Shashwatee Biplob, Social Protection and Policy Manager with HelpAge International in Bangladesh, says: “More and more elderly Bangladeshis are being left alone.” Two key questions have arisen regarding the security of the elderly as they learn to take care of themselves: how will they support themselves and where will they live?
A recent article introduced readers to Zamirual Miah, a 65-year-old man who moved from his Bangladeshi village to Dhaka a couple of years ago. He lost his home to river erosion, and his son lives and works in the Middle East. Mr. Miah does not have skills that are in demand in the big city. Mr. Miah – victim of the changing family dynamic and of climate change — must live by begging and sleeping on the streets of Dhaka.
A HelpAge India report found that almost 50% of India’s elderly is financially dependent on someone else, but this statistic will likely change in the near future. In Mumbai, 62-year-old rickshaw driver Maqbool Beg states, “Until I can no longer work, I will work.” Mr. Beg was interviewed for a Global Post article: he has two grown-up children, but neither can financially support him; he must continue working for the meager INR4,500 (US$100) he makes per month to support his humble lifestyle in expensive Mumbai.
What is the labor market like for the elderly? Unfortunately, like in most job markets – even in Western countries – there is age discrimination at play in South Asia’s labor markets. A September 2010 policy brief published by the Nepal Participatory Action Network (NEPAN) quoted the Nepal Labor Force Survey 2008: “Conventionally, the people of 60 years and above have been categorized as economically inactive. However, this is not valid in many cases of senior citizens in Nepal. The labor force survey 2008 has provided useful information to examine the economic activities of senior citizens in Nepal along with other age groups. It has clearly shown that their contribution has been 0.6 percent.” For the elderly to start supporting themselves, there needs to be demand for their offered skill sets, or there needs to be training initiatives set up for their benefit. Integrating the elderly into the formal labor force is a big step towards helping them attain financial independence and security.
The question of where the elderly will live is a complicated one. In a recent study by Pakistan’s Senior Citizens Trust, it was found that 98% of the elderly prefer to live with their families rather than be admitted to “old age” homes or retirement communities. Such facilities are not the norm in South Asia and are quite limited in number. It is also important to note that if such facilities exist, they cater to the middle-classes and are anyway out of reach for the poor. There is a clear intervention opportunity by governments or for public-private partnerships here: the creation and support of more affordable or subsidized elderly-centric facilities would be the start to changing social consciousness about how the elderly can and should live. Bangladesh’s Ministry of Social Welfare seems to believe this: a project is now under way to establish six homes for the elderly across six districts in Bangladesh.
Legitimizing the rights and security of the elderly is a complex agenda. It is easy to understand why governments are trying to promote the multigenerational family tradition by legislating support for people who care for their elder family members, but this effort cannot stamp out a rising trend. Regardless of the motivation for the poor and old to fend for themselves in cities – because their children have moved away for work or who find their elder family members a financial burden – it is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently, and perhaps governments and civil organizations will need to turn to relatively untraditional, unfamiliar models, such as homes and skills training initiatives for the elderly, to make progress and alleviate the burden of poverty on this demographic now and in the future.