Missing Variable In India’s Economy: Its Seniors

Living in fear, poverty and loneliness, India’s seniors are being kept from the benefits of the booming economy

If you’ve ever read any microeconomics, or simply observed the workings of rural-urban migration, you know that the economy of any country revolves around one key factor: labor market. Typically, labor drives a country’s economy up or down; most policies are either labor-centric or pro-preparation of a future workforce. Economics doesn’t have room for seniors who have exited the labor market. While industrialization helped western societies eventually realize the importance of their elderly, economies that are leapfrogging on the wings of technology are yet to get there. In terms of GDP growth rate, these economies typically fall in the highest growth rate category of 6% -10% :

India (barring last two quarters) has been in that category since past six years. Economists attribute this phenomenal growth to the country’s young population & corresponding low dependency ratio, healthy savings & investment rates, and the increasing integration into global economy. Again, the aging population and seniors are not a part of the narrative.

One in every tenth Indian is above the age of 60 which totals to about a 100 million seniors (~3 times the population of Canada). Despite that staggering number, only 28.9% of seniors get pension and even lower percentage has access to healthcare with state governments spending only 7% of health care funds on them. Criminal offenses against the elderly have been steadily rising every year with murder, robbery and serious injuries becoming a common affair. Most seniors who live alone, have stopped going out, afraid they might be next.

At a global performance stage of countries that ensure social & economic wellbeing of their elderly, India ranks 71 (behind Bangladesh and Nepal). Argentina, a country with a GDP growth rate of -1.2%, ranks 40 points higher than India, at 31.

A society once culturally rooted in beliefs of extended families living together & respecting the elders, has transmogrified into an unrecognizable mush driven by capitalism, disregard and indifference. How Did India Get Here?

A half-baked response is what I started this article with: Lewis’ two-sector model. According to Lewis, there are two sectors in our society — traditional & capitalist. Transition of surplus labor from the former(traditional) to the latter(capitalist) results in economic development (assuming wages in the capitalist sector have a premium value which is significantly higher than the wages in traditional sector). To some extent Lewis’ model helps highlight the root-cause to seniors’ neglect in rural India — people have no choice but to leave their elders behind in a quest for a better life for their family. Without adequate government policies to financially support them, rural elderly population often lives in poverty and poor health conditions.

However, as highlighted by numerous studies, the problem persists in urban India as well and is way worse with issues of safety, security and abuse involved. Take a look at stats from a study by HelpAge India Foundation highlighting senior abuse across major cities in India :

There isn’t enough data available, however, on how many of cited incidents ended up being reported and if corrective action was taken in the event of a report. The study also highlights that in the event of an abuse, there aren’t many safe, low-cost public old-age/retirement homes for seniors to seek refuge. So most of the times, the financially or physically dependent seniors end up suffering through the abuse. If all of that wasn’t painful enough, the most disturbing revelation of all is the fact that younger generation is aware of all these atrocities and yet choose to ignore:

While nationally, 37% of the youth prefer to remain passive (to elder abuse), a shocking 92% of Delhi Youth will not intervene. 64% of Chennai Youth and 45% Hyderabad Youth are also apathetic. Kolkata (3%) and Kanpur (7%) appear the most pro-active.

Although apathy is on the rise nationally, in handful of cities there’s still hope. If these cities and their responsible younger generations rally, they may be able to force Government’s hand towards making the seniors feel safe and respected, just like it used to be.

Otherwise how different would the Indian Society be, from societies that euthanized their ‘disabled, elderly and unfit to work’?

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