Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Dignity for senior citizens

Even with the help of 248 NGOs engaged in 314 projects, only 18225 elderly people benefitted from welfare schemes

A news item had a stressful, unsettling effect on me last week. Of all the news pouring in, this news hit me the most, because of the sheer emotional corrosiveness that it depicted. A 36-year-old man pushed his 64-year-old ailing mother from the terrace of his building in Rajkot, Gujarat, in cold blood because, apparently, “he was fed up of her illness.” A video clipping, that was graphic in its own way, shows how Sandip Nathwani calmly walks his wobbling mother out of the house, nudges her up the stairs. Moments later, is seeing returning alone; he nonchalantly removes his slippers outside the flat and enters in with stomach-churning aloofness. It was as if he had just thrown a garbage bag out and came dusting dirt off his hands.
This episode made me dig deeper into the kind of welfare services that the state can provide for people with children they hoped they never had. Unfortunately, because of the social stigma, family prestige and the general social fabric of our country, many elderly continue to stay in abusive, life-threatening conditions instead of walking out and seeing help. This attitude may have started a vicious cycle of shedding responsibility because the state-supported welfare units are few and far between. The number of beneficiaries is abysmal.

According to Population Census 2011 there are nearly 104 million elderly persons (aged 60 years or above) in India; 53 million females and 51 million males. A report titled Elderly in India – Profile and Programmes 2016 released by The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation throws light on the demographics of the senior citizen population the country. It also talks about various government schemes available for them, however, the statistics provided regarding the number of beneficiaries highlights serious concerns about the efficacy and outreach of the programmes. Indeed, one particular observation made in the introductory section of the report is objectionable in its insinuating tone that, in so many cleverly masked words, reduces senior citizens as being an economic and social liability. The said paragraph from the report is reproduced below:

“Social security spending of Government also increases with the increase of old age population. Due to increased longevity of life, pension bills increase. On the other hand, lesser people of working age means lower number of working people leading to lower tax base and lower tax collection. Economy grows slowly as less money is available for spending on things that help economy grow. A sizeable portion of money is spent on meeting requirement of old age population. Government, thus, has to face the double whammy. On one side the resources are shrunk, on the other, expenditure is increased.”
The above paragraph reads like a list of expenses that are a burden to the government. It is as if the state is rather doing the citizens a favour by even trying to do something for its elderly population in the first place. I was shocked by the tone of the above paragraph. If nothing else, it clearly shows a lack of commitment to bring dignity and comfort to the lives of our elderly. Statistics provided in reference to the various welfare schemes reaffirm the alarming state of affairs.

The National Policy on Older Persons (NPOP) was announced in January 1999 to reaffirm the commitment of the State to ensure the well-being of the older persons. The Policy envisages state support to ensure financial and food security, health care, shelter and other needs of older persons, equitable share in development, protection against abuse and exploitation, and availability of services to improve the quality of their lives. On paper, the list of projects carried out under NPOP is exhaustive: maintenance of old age homes; respite care homes; running of multi service centres, mobile medicare unit, day care centres for the elderly with dementia, centres for old widows, physiotherapy clinics, help lines and counselling, forming senior citizen associations, volunteer bureau for elderly – the list goes on. The question is, how many of these nice-sounding services are actually made available and how many elderly benefit from them.  The figures are disappointing.
The number of NGOs assisted in 2012-13 was 296; number of projects assisted was 496 and there were 30775 beneficiaries. In 2013-14, the number of NGOs assisted dropped down to 255, number of projects fell to 413 and the number of beneficiaries reduced to 27913. In 2014-15 even though the number of NGOs engaged (248) remained more or less the same as the previous years and 314 projects were assigned for the welfare of senior citizens, the number of beneficiaries showed an alarming drop – the services reached only 18225 elderly people in the entire country.

Only 18225 elderly people – out a demographic of 10.4 crore elderly persons (assuming the population is same as in the population census of 2011) - translates into the welfare schemes reaching only 0.02% senior citizens. How shameful is this? Talks of Indian culture, where the elderly are supposed to be treated with respect and tender care all vanish in thin air. What a shame that officially, on paper, the government has admitted that it reached out to only 0.02% of the senior citizen population? Agreed, that not every old individual may be in need of state aid, but even after factoring that in, the reports clearly indicate that there is a huge vacuum in providing services for the elderly.

This column first appeared in The Goan Everyday in January 2018


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Jihad against love, actually

It is not just inter-faith marriages that are riddled with scrutiny from outsiders. Inter-caste marriages still meet with staunch opposition

On Saturday, members of a Hindu fringe group called Hindu Yuva Vahini beat up a Muslim youth and his two brothers, allegedly in the premises of the Baghpat court in Uttar Pradesh. Video footage shows the men dragging Kaleem outside the court, roughing him up even as police stand by in mute mode, and later rejoicing after packing off the Kaleem and his alleged girlfriend into a police jeep. The woman, who hails from Punjab, is reportedly a Hindu and had eloped with Kaleem, following which, her parents had filed a case of abduction. Hindu Yuva Vahini members have indulged in cases of moral policing in the past. They also take pride in their active roles against "love jihad" and saving the pride of Hindu girls who they say are "lured" into relationships for religious conversion. 

Filing an abduction case is often a classic strategy even if the woman is a major and it is evident that she has left of free will. A case of abduction is promptly registered. Once the couple is caught, the police often happily takes up the role of marriage counsellors - the man is probably roughed up and the woman shamed in the name of family's prestige. Such a scenario is commonplace all over India. The case of Hadiya, a young Hindu woman from Kerala who converted to Islam, made headlines for a better part of December last year. The idea of a 24-year-old being returned to her father's "custody" by a high court raised questions about patriarchal leaning even in the judiciary.

There are legal provisions for inter-faith marriage where in there is no religious conversion for either spouse. In spite of legal provisions, there are instances when either spouse converts to accept the other's religion before marriage. Whether this is under social pressure, like many argue it is, or by free choice, religious conversion shouldn't throw doubts on the intentions of either the bride and the groom, because the conversion also points to a conscious choice to remain together and that the couple puts personal preferences over religious obligations. Far-right groups cannot tolerate such choices. As soon as they get a whiff of an inter-faith affair, they take it upon themselves to separate the couple. 

According to a recent Times of India report, these fringe groups have a widespread network of informers and "depend on a large and intricate mesh of informers, from bus drivers to waiters, advocates, farmers and sometimes even labourers to alert them on inter-faith affairs." There is rampant hooliganism which makes for good visuals that are promptly picked up and repeatedly telecast by news channels.do these fringe groups engage in such activities just for the sake of footage and free publicity? As they say, any publicity is good publicity. But, at what expense? Which religion says that separating two people who have made up their mind to be together is an honourable act?

It is not just inter-faith marriages that are riddled with scrutiny from outsiders. Inter-caste marriages still meet with staunch opposition. Cases of honour killings abound. The 2016 Marathi film, Sairat, dealt with the issue and was a resounding hit. With the rise of love vigilantism more and more tales of love end up being ruthlessly silenced. An optimist would like to believe that there would never be anything that would go against the honourable principles of love. But, such a utopian world doesn't exist. Even in the most civilised of kingdoms, discrimination and persecution has existed when it came to accepting the exercise of free will of two human beings in being drawn to each other and consequently, deciding to stay together (The iron-walled institution of marriage, and the concept of 'forever and after' as they dreamily say, is a relatively recent innovation in the human species). 

History shows that the act of two individuals falling in love has always been the subject of opposition, criticism, wicked plots of subversion, revenge or murder. In fact, folklore and legend the world over thrives on such tragedies. Take the legend of Heer Ranjha popular in Punjab. Heer fell in love with Ranjha, and predictably, her family opposed. The couple continued to meet in secret. A river separated their villages. On the night they were to elope, Ranjha waited for Heer at the other end of a river. Heer didn't know how to swim and was to get across the river by floating with the support of an up-turned earthen pot. Heer's sister-in-law got to know about their plan and changed Heer's earthen pot with an unbaked one. That night, when Heer tried to cross the river, the unbaked pot began to give away. Clumps of mud dissolved in the river and Heer drowned. Ranjha waited at the other end, not aware of Heer's fate, and is believed to have died waiting. 

Is human race sadistic when it comes to love? When there is an opportunity to let love blossom, we turn away, resist and even obstruct the union. But, years later, we epitomise these same lovers made miserable by the same prejudiced mindsets that existed then, as they exist now. Stories of unrequited love abound. Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez has famously noted that it is not happiness, but unrequited love, that is the basis of all literature of the world. Honestly, I would just prefer happy couples than having grumpy writers plagued by unrequited love churning one soul-stirring tragedy after other. 

*This column was first published in The Goan Everyday