Though many have welcome the introduction of the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in the Lok Sabha on December 11, a closer analysis of the clauses of the proposed law makes it clear that the government has failed to address the needs and concerns of India’s elderly.

The Bill which seeks to amend the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, aims to provide a “life of dignity” to senior citizens of all ages. The amendments were deemed necessary
because of the crumbling of the joint family system that once ensured care for many senior citizens and the rising number of cases of abuse, neglect and abandonment of the elderly in India.

One of the most significant amendments has been included in the Bill is that the definition of children has been expanded. The current legislation only considers biological children and grandchildren as well as having responsibility for caring for elderly parents, but the Bill includes daughters-in-law and sons-in-law as well as adopted and step children in the purview of the family. The other important amendment is the removal of the ceiling of Rs 10, 000 as a maintenance amount that adult children could give their parents.

In addition, the Bill makes registration of senior citizens homes mandatory and has laid down minimum standards for residents of these facilities. Finally, to tackle concerns about crime against the elderly, the amended bill has added the appointment of nodal police officers for senior citizens in every police station as well as a district-level special police unit for senior citizens. The Bill has also included maintenance of helpline numbers for senior citizens.

Privatising a social responsibility

As per the 2011 Census, India is home to 104 million elderly people who are 60 years or older. The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act that was implemented in 2007 gave adult children the responsibility for later life caregiving. The expansion of the definition of children in the Bill merely underscores the fact that the government is unwilling to be held accountable for the welfare of India’s senior citizens. It has privatised its responsibility for a vulnerable section of the population.

In the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, it was compulsory for adult children to pay their older parents a monthly allowance, capped at a maximum of Rs 10, 000. While the ceiling of Rs 10, 000 has been removed by the amended Bill, there are other factors that need to be considered.

For instance, many middle-class elderly people are not dependent on their children for support but rely on the interest they earn on their personal savings. Recently the State Bank of India, the country’s largest lender, has reduced the interest rates on both savings accounts as well as fixed deposits. As a result, middle-class senior citizens who do not receive any form of pension have to cope with low rates of return even as they continue to pay taxes. The removal of the ceiling on the maintenance allowance is of no help to them.

Besides, the amendments only refer to older adults with children. Childless older adults have not been provided for.

Regarding the senior care homes, the government makes it necessary for these facilities to be registered, and lays down minimum standards of care. However, the Bill does not specify what “minimum standards of care” mean. Most senior care homes follow the format of pay and stay. Elderly people with no relatives and no income or savings have no place to go. Unless the government provides free senior homes, the challenge of the deserted elderly will continue to exist.

A chat at Delhi's Indian Coffee House. Credit: Manpreet Romana/ AFP

In recent times, crime rates against elderly have risen significantly in India. As per a report by the National Crime Records Bureau in 2016, crimes against the elderly rose by 10% from 2014 to 2015. Hence, the appointment of nodal officers in the amended bill should be lauded. However, these officers will need to constant patrol to ensure the safety of the elderly in different cities of India.

Finally, the amended bill does not address mental health issues. As per a report by the Agewell Foundation in 2017-’18, one in every two elderly people suffer from loneliness. Despite the rising awareness around mental health, the Bill does not focus on issues of depression, dementia and Alzheimer among older adults in India.

In many countries with rising aging populations, the government takes responsibility for its older adults. But in India, the government has chosen to rely on family structures for later life caregiving arrangements. With no support from the state in the form of pension or healthcare, India’s elderly cannot expect the legislation to address their long-term challenges.

Jagriti Gangopadhyay is a post-doctoral fellow at the Manipal Centre for Humanities at Manipal Academy of Higher Eduction.