The Union Budget is not likely to change anything for many of us, but for millions of senior citizens in India, it is a matter of life and death. Will 2013 be the year they finally receive their due?
The last time senior citizens in this country were truly hopeful of a better future was back in 1999, the year in which, after decades of delay, the National Policy on Older Persons was unveiled. It was even officially celebrated as the 'National Year of Older Persons'. The dawn of a new tomorrow,many said.
Thirteen years later, the act is all but forgotten. In 2007, the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act was introduced but is still in varied stages of implementation across the country. Whatever the Acts, progress has been slow and results, negligible. The story of the 10 crore or more senior citizens is still largely that of neglect, vulnerability, destitution and despair. That is not to say, welfare schemes were not introduced. Implementation, however, is another story. Pensions, for instance, were introduced, but are embarrassingly inadequate. Under the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme (IGNOAPS), more than three crore senior citizens (in the age group of 60-80) subsist on a monthly token amount of `200 a month. "Which is almost never on time, reduced to half or less, thanks to rampant corruption in the pension office and so grossly inadequate, it's shameful," rues Kiran Shukla, a Kanpur based advocate who specialises in cases of elderly abuse.
Predictably, the chief reason for the poor execution of the NPOP-99 and others through the years has remained the same — budgetary constraints. Representation after representation by senior citizen welfare groups were made to rectify the situation, with little luck. However, for the first time in 13 years, there seemed like a glimmer of hope when this year, a Working Group on Social Welfare was constituted by the Planning Commission which made a series of recommendations for adoption in the 12th Five Year Plan.
"Every time we made representations, asked about why little was being done to implement the National Policy on Older Persons, the States said they had no money, as did the government. This was because the Planning Commission did not earmark any funds for us. Due to the scale, it became challenging for us to map out the costs and estimates. So when this time, the working group made its recommendations, it rectified some of that and made an informed case," explains RN Mittal, president of AISSCON.
Among other things, the working group recommended that the New National Policy on Senior Citizens be implemented properly, health insurance cover be raised, Bureaus for Economic Empowerment of Senior Citizens at District Level and more. Senior Citizen Associations like AISSCON added their requests and asked for pension amounts, tax exemptions to be increased, setting up of Senior Citizen Welfare Boards at Centre and State Levels, and a minimum of one old age home to be set up in each district.
But despite the initial excitement, many now believe it's business as usual for the government. They say there's no point getting your hopes raised over this year's budget and that their pleas are falling on deaf ears. "Usually there's disagreement between us on the numbers. But this time the Planning Commission's own sub-committee has presented these recommendations and still the government has done nothing. There's almost nothing of substance from either our representations or the group's recommendations in Mr Aluwalia's draft of the 12th Five Year Plan. There's going to be little for us in this year budget," believes Dr Vyasa Moorthi, vice president, AP Senior Citizens Confederation.
Even as a group that currently amounts to roughly 10 per cent of the total population, at 100 million people, it's helpless, say senior citizens. "They have incorporated three or four recommendations. Which are all the ones that don't involve money," remarks RTI activist MV Ruparelia. He goes on to add, "The government is complacent because they know we can't do anything. Fine, let's assume it has no money to allot to senior citizens. But how do you explain that it won't even pass instructions to its officials to properly implement the existing acts and policies? It's indifferent to our cause."
How much, or if anything at all, of this year's budget will go towards the welfare of Senior Citizens is still unclear. What if it's nothing?"Then I guess we'll go on a rally on August 16 when it is the Senior Citizen's protest day and hope that someone will take notice. What else can we do?" Somaraju B, a septuagenarian pensioner asks bleakly.
It is a question that's better suited to the government. Because the Union Budget this year is not likely to change anything significant for many of us, but for millions of senior citizens in India, it will be a matter of life and death.
Recommendations of the Working Group ignored by the Planning Commission
Senior Citizen's groups allege that only 11 out of 30 recommendations of the Working Group were taken note of while the rest were ignored.
- To increase insurance cover under Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna to `1 lakh for senior citizens from existing `30,000.
- Make provision of 1,800 crore for setting more Geriatric Centres/Wards for Senior Citizens.
- Enhancement of Pension under Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme.
- 14 Centres for assisted living for rehabilitation of elderly suffering from dementia etc.
- Setting up of National Institute of Ageing.
- Providing training to care givers in 100 cities.
- Free legal service to BPL seniors.
- Setting up of separate department of senior citizens.
Crucial issues still in debate
- Enhancement of Pension under Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme. Proposal for a universal pension of `2,000 for all BPL senior citizens with 50 per cent more for 80+.
- Establishment of one Old Age Home per district.
- Proper implementation of the NPOP-99.
Senior Citizen Fact File
- India has the second largest aged population the world.
- Current number of senior citizens: An estimated 100 million
- By 2050: 326 million
- Below Poverty Line: 33 per cent
- Within the next five years, the number of adults aged 65 and over will outnumber children under the age of 5.
Source: HelpAge India