You areleft with no choice in old age, if you are poor.
The process of ageing involves the continuous biological declineof the body and mind with the passing of years. People become forgetful, theirvision fades, they hear less, and find it hard to walk. Senility and neurosisare common. It has always been this way. Thirteenth century Sufi poet Rumisings wistfully of this universal mystery of life: “Why is it that the lion'sstrength weakens to nothing? The wrestler who could hold anyone down is led outwith two people supporting him, their shoulders under his arms?”
This summer, elderly people from villages and slums across theland gathered for five scorching days in Jantar Mantar, the capital's site forpublic protest. There were among them farm workers and small farmers, casualdaily workers, head-loaders and construction labourers, artisans and sexworkers. After lifetimes of hard labour, when their wearied bodies sought restand health-care, they are instead condemned to toil until their last day, ifthey are to eat.
Their demand in what they called the Pension Parishad was thatevery aged person in the country who does not pay income tax, or draw a pensionfrom other sources, should be entitled to a monthly pension from the State. Apublic official is paid a pension equivalent to half the last salary that he orshe drew. By the same logic, all aged people from the informal sector shouldreceive a pension that is at least half the statutory minimum wage forunskilled work, which amounts to around 2,000 rupees a month.
This massive public demonstration concerning the destinies ofmore than 90 million people, tellingly attracted little more than a few inchesof newsprint, and hardly any discussion in the loquacious televisiontalk-shows. In an impatiently youthful nation, the aged no longer seem tomatter.
The inexorable decline in physical strength with age does notnecessarily imply a decline in social worth. On the contrary, in manytraditional societies, the aged taught the young the values of the community,and were anchors of the community in difficult times. But in modern society,old people find themselves increasingly pushed to the margins, poorly valued,often barely tolerated, or actively abandoned and expelled.
These problems are compounded greatly for old men and women fromimpoverished households. They carry many burdens: Economic deprivation andinsecurity, restricted mobility because of ill-health, physical insecurity,lowered dignity and self-esteem, loneliness, rejection, and lack of dignifiedoccupation and leisure. The UNPF estimates that 70 per cent of the elderly areilliterate: The figure is as high as 93 per cent for aged women. This severelylimited their capacity to earn and save when they were strong of body and mind;it limits them even more as they age.
It is estimated that round 75 per cent of old persons live inrural India, of which over 48 per cent are women and more than half are widows.My colleagues and I undertook a year-long study of hunger among destitutegroups in villages in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Odisha. Significantly,large numbers of the most destitute people we encountered in any village wereaged persons, several of them living alone.
We found that life, especially for old persons without caregivers, is one of unrelieved toil until their last day, of humiliation anddaily denial. They suffer daily indignities in securing food through foragingand begging, debt bondage and low end highly underpaid work; self denial; andsacrifice of other survival needs like medicine.
Chronic food shortages often demand the most unreasonable ofchoices, between food and medicines, such as the choice between eating to stayalive and buying medicines to relieve unbearable pain. Many old people simplytry to wait out an attack of illness rather than seek treatment, because ifthey go to an (often dubious) health practitioner, it means even less food intheir stomachs or in those of spouses and others who are dependent on them.
Old people in poor families usually need to work regardless ofwhether they live separately or with their sons (or occasionally daughters);they still need to contribute to the household in productive ways. Employersknow they are desperate and powerless; they pay them very low wages, oftennothing more than food, country liquor and a new set of clothes every year.
The work they are offered is physically difficult like cattlegrazing on steep scrub hillsides with little foliage, weeding, sewing, cuttinggrass for fodder, cleaning cowsheds, husking and drying grain and gatheringfirewood and dung and similar activities that require work that is exacting andtoilsome, and payment exploitative. Even this is always offered like charity tothe unproductive and undeserving, rather than as a rightful claim to work.
Old people are mostly rudely turned away when they seek food oncredit from shopkeepers. Trying to buy groceries on credit is always ahumiliating experience. Shopkeepers sardonically remark that there is noguarantee how long old people will live; they may slyly slip away to the otherworld without repaying their loans.
However infirm they are, however sick, however challenged tofeed dependents or themselves, there is no prospect for food for them unlessand until they work. If begging is also considered work, then this is virtuallyan unbroken rule that applied almost universally among the old, who also happento be poor.
It was such men and women who briefly gathered in the city'scapital. They asked many questions of us. If people who work for government orprivate companies get pensions, why not us? If the country cannot afford apension for the poor, how come it can afford it for those who need it far lessdesperately than us? The government finds money for what it feels is necessary— for armaments, for building glittering cities, and yes, for multi-crorescams. Then why not for a well-earned retirement for those who laboured alltheir lives?
They asked many questions of us. But we had few answers.