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HELPLESS

Closing act

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The elderly are often asked by the police to resolve differences with their children at home and not seek protection under The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizen's Act.

It's not just the infrastructure that is insensitive towards the aged. Even the laws meant for their welfare have let them down.

Sixty-six year old Meera Keswani dreads every visit by her son. Married at 30 and widowed at 34, Keswani raised her adopted son, Rohit, only to be physically abused by him later. She now lives separately. But Rohit still manages to extort money by using force. She finds it hard to support herself and her two grandchildren, whose maintenance she pays to Rohit's first wife, from her Rs 10, 000 pension.

Brigadier Prabajot Singh of Lajpat Nagar in Delhi complains that he is not able to contact the senior citizen's cell where he is a registered user. He is disabled and needs help to renew his driving license. The police has neither called nor visited him.

Keswani and Singh are amongst the estimated 9 crore older people living in India. Life expectancy has increased from 40 years in 1951 to 64 years today. This demographic transition has generated tremendous challenges for healthy ageing in India. The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizen's Act passed in 2007 holds very little hope for the likes of Keswani, who'd rather go to NGOs like HelpAge India or reach out to social benefactors like Kiran Bedi, instead. Whenever she has contacted the police for help they have asked her to resolve her 'gharelu maamla' (family matter) at home rather than approach a tribunal that the Act provides for.

"The shortcomings of the 2007 Act did not escape our attention," says J P Meena, joint secretary, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). It is, therefore, not without reason that the apex human rights body has now decided to constitute a core group on protection and welfare of elderly persons and to recommend necessary policy changes to the government.

Mathew Cherian, member of the core group and CEO, HelpAge India says: "The Act envisaged well but it has not been implemented efficiently. " For one, the Act has been riddled with operational delays since its inception. It was passed in 2007 but its 'date of effect' was a year later in September 1, 2008. Four years later, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are yet to notify the Act. This continues to be the case even after a multi-crore old age pension scam was unearthed in Bahraich district of UP.

Even in Delhi - one of the few states that has been active in implementing the Act - the tribunals were set up a year after the date of effect. These tribunals are a strong platform for voicing grievances of senior citizens. There's no application fee, no advocates are required and speedy decisions are delivered within 90 days. Yet, the number of cases referred to tribunals continues to be regrettably low due to the lack of awareness. Even in Delhi, where most of the tribunals are functioning fairly well only 14 cases have been brought before the Central tribunal and nine before the New Delhi one so far. The figures are much lower in other states.

The senior citizens cell under the Delhi Police received 782 complaints till mid-November last year. HelpAge India also received close to 300 calls, 95 of which were regarding abuse and harassment. These figures clearly show that problems faced by senior citizens are not on a decline. But the absence of awareness about this Act robs the elderly of whatever little benefit the Act has for them.

Effective implementation of the Act has been further pruned by the limited scope of its provisions. For instance, Cherian points out that in the last three years no old age home was built in Delhi under its purview. The proposal was recommended but there was no obligation on the part of the state to build them. Also, the financial memorandum does not specify the amount of funds to be allotted for building such homes.

It is interesting to note that activists had exposed the limitations the Act right at the time of its inception in 2007. But it is only now the NHRC has decided to examine the impact and outcome of the now three-year old Act.

Perhaps the biggest and most conspicuous failure of the Act is its neglect of the poor. It does not speak for 5. 1 crore poor old people in India who live below the poverty line. The senior citizen's cell in Delhi has only middle-class and upper-middle class citizens as registered users. Officials at the cell don't visit jhuggis or camps. Dr K S Verma, member New Delhi tribunal, admits they have not been approached by very poor citizens.

Another serious flaw in the Act is that it ignores elders who do not have children or property. The dominant focus is on 'maintenance' of parents, whereas welfare provisions for senior citizens to be carried out by the state remain limited to recommendations for separate queues, reserved beds in hospitals and for old age homes that "may" be constructed.
The state's share of the responsibility is further reduced thanks to Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, and the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956 that "mandate children to take care of their parents". As Cherian puts it, "by placing onus of the aged on children this Act allows the state to cop out. "

At a more fundamental level the Act fails to honour a constitutional promise - effective provision for maintenance of the aged.

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