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Can India abandon its aged widows?

November 14, 2017



A recent report points out that by 2050, the population of India's 80-plus would have grown 700% “with a predominance of widowed and highly dependent very old women.


The number of elderly in India will triple by 2050, and a fifth of the country’s population will be aged, says a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report.


The country faces a major challenge of how to take care of a large population of senior citizens in the immediate future, whereas “the special needs of such oldest old women would need significant focus of policy and programmes”.


The report underlines the status of elderly women, who are more vulnerable due to a longer life expectancy as compared to their male counterparts. Aged widows with meager or no income, are especially vulnerable in the absence of a proper social security network. What’s more worrying is the fact that 10 % of them are living alone, and the number has been rising over the past few decades.


According to the India Ageing report titled ‘Caring for Our Elders: Early Responses: India Ageing 2017’, the population of those over 60 years is set to grow three-fold from around 100 million at present to 300 million by 2050. 


The demographic transition will leave elderly women more vulnerable in terms of needs such as housing, safety and finances. The incidence of chronic diseases among all elderly will also increase. Elderly women were more vulnerable than men due to their longer life expectancy and meagre or no income.


The UN estimates show India currently has over 100 million seniors (8% of the population). This figure is expected to touch 324 million by 2050 when seniors will account for 20 per cent of the population. The 60 plus population is expected to go up to 19 % in 2050.


The report flags some key concerns, and maps policy and programmatic responses by the Government and civil society across the country.


With an urgent need to start planning for demographic transition, the country needs to seriously take care of the multiple vulnerabilities faced by the aged, especially in terms of health, income, as well as social and psychological aspects.


With 12.5% of the total population being over 60 by 2030 and nearly a fifth of the total population by 2050, feminisation of ageing remained a key issue. The sex ratio of the elderly is projected to increase from 938 women to 1,000 men in 1971 to 1,033 in 2011 and to 1,060 by 2026. Currently all states have higher life expectancies at old ages for women than for men.


Women stand at a greater risk in old age as they are by and large poorly paid for the work done during their lifetime and by and large no savings. Their vulnerability rises with age and widowhood brought about by lower life expectancy for men compounds this problem. Add to it the fact that 93% of the country's workforce is in the informal sector, there is no social security for them in old age and this problem too afflicts women the most.


Income insecurity, lack of adequate access to quality health care and isolation were more acute for the rural elderly as most areas lacked proper roads and transport access. As per the 2011 Census, 71% of all old people resided in rural India.


Migration of younger working-age persons from rural areas can have both positive and negative impacts on the elderly, the report said. It was also a fact that “older people prefer to live in their own homes and community”.


The report outlays the demographic, demographic and socio-economic status of the elderly, including work force participation, income security, living arrangements, health status, gender concerns and access to social welfare services meant for the elderly. 


There are nearly 104 million elderly persons (aged 60 years or above) in India. Ranked 71st, the country is much behind Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal when it comes to providing enabling environment, income security and access to healthcare of its grey population.



State of 'Grey population' in India


  • Among older people in India, only 28.9 per cent have a pension

  • By 2025, 25 % of those above 60 and 40 % of those above 75 above are likely to be living alone

  • India ranked 52nd as a low percentage of older people feel socially connected and safe

  • Ranked 55th with educational qualification among older people (22.4 per cent) below regional average (30.3 per cent)

  • Ranked 72nd in income security domain with pension income coverage (28.9 per cent) and GNI per capita (US$4,991) below regional averages (49 per cent and $10,237 respectively)

  • Ranked lowest in health domain (87th).               


Much hope was pinned on the National Programme for Health Care of the Elderly (NPHCE) launched in 2010 to “provide separate, specialised and comprehensive healthcare to senior citizens at various level of state healthcare delivery system, including outreach services”. However, the programme struggles with issues like lack of awareness and underutilisation of funds. State-wise data shows that most of the states did not even utilise 10 % of the fund allocated under the programme. Implementation is almost nil.


As it ages, India needs to invest in supporting the contributions, experience and expertise of their growing number of older citizens to ensure that no one is left behind.


A quick look at India’s ageing policies reveal the country needs to focus on providing realistic and workable welfare schemes for the elderly health, housing, and dignity.


Among the current government plans are opening a large number of day-care centres for the elderly. A Rashtriya Vayoshri Yojana was launched to assist senior citizens suffering from age-related ailments. The government also plans to use unclaimed funds lying in Employees State Insurance and Provident Fund accounts as well as in banks for the empowerment of senior citizens. Officials say a sum of Rs 483 crore from such accounts has been used. Government plans to utilize the experience of senior citizens as mentors in schools, colleges, hospitals, etc.


Plans have been drawn up for the registration of all old-age homes. The central government at present does not know those under the states and private sector. It also plans to launch ratings for all home-care services, which cater to the elderly and the sick.


Other plans include coining a new terminology for old-age homes, providing senior citizens with smart cards linked to Aadhaar. It is also working on a uniform age for defining senior citizens. Are they meaningful, or enough? 

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