The elderly couple’s story went viral thanks to social media, and society helped them, but what we need more is effective policy intervention for millions of them who are in distress
Dr. Rakesh Chandra | November 2, 2020
By now most of us already know about the Baba ka Dhaba, a three-decade-old eatery in South Delhi whose story recently went viral on social media. An elderly couple who runs the place and their struggle during the Covid-19-induced lockdown period were all across the internet and news after their video was uploaded on social media by a vlogger. I loved to see the distressed elderly owners smiling on TV after people rushed in to help. Their Dhaba seemed to have got a new lease of economic life after all the limelight and reportedly a heavy footfall, and they are supposedly living happily now (I am not sure though).
The story found prime coverage in national media, which hailed the turn of events at Dhaba as a “magic” of social media, while news reporters covered it relentlessly for a few days. It indeed unfolded like a perfect magic, and as viewers, we had our share of pleasant surprise and moral gratification, and now we are back to routine. In the following few days, many other similar stories of struggling elderlies cropped up on the same social media from various other parts of India, but we skipped over in search for some different magic. Meanwhile, majority of our elderly population (aged 60 years and above) still struggles in their daily lives and unfortunately it demands something more than magic of social media to make their lives dignified and meaningful.
A large proportion of elderly population in India expects attention
As per the Census of India (2011), the country had a population of 104 million elderly persons, which was almost equal to the combined population of the United Kingdom and Spain. As per the National Sample Survey (2004) estimates, around 78 percent of them were living either alone or with only their spouses or some relatives – and not with their own children. Evidently most of the elderlies’ children were not living with them when they were needed most. So as per this estimate, only 22 percent of them seemed to have some care and support and that, too, only if we assume that their children had done so. These numbers highlight the sorry state of affairs in India, where there is almost complete absence of any government-sponsored support system for the elderly population and over a 100 million of them are at the risk of loneliness and destitution.
India as one of the youngest countries (in terms of age structure of population) in the world has a very low old-age dependency ratio, which was 14.2 in 2011. This also means that India has proportionately a very small population of elderlies to be taken care of. This, however, does not translate into any favourable scenario for our elderly population. As per the NSS (2004) estimates, more than 50 percent of elderly men and 85 percent of women had no fixed source of monetary support and depended on others for their day-to-day needs. These numbers are also corroborated by the Census of India (2011), which reports that more than 60% of the elderly men (and 23 percent women) had to engage in some economically productive work in their old age. This along with the fact that many of the elderlies suffered from a variety of chronic medical conditions and faced issue of mobility and physical disability make the picture gloomier.
It is projected that the elderly population in India will grow over 300 million by 2050. It is a huge number and just to assist your visualisation, this will be equivalent to the five times the current total population of the UK or eight times that of Spain! Demographically this also means that India will have to take care of more and more old-age population with every passing year with lesser supporting hand.
What have been done so far for the elderly population?
Every now and then we encounter painful stories, images, videos of struggling old men and women captioned with emotional appeals for support on various social media platforms. Only a few of them gather steam, become viral (as in case of ‘Baba ka Dhaba’) and find place in mainstream media debates while the rest end up in digital archives. Those viral stories and debates, however, fail to ask larger questions: What happens to the elderlies devoid of any spotlight? Do we have any efficient measures in place to take care of our elderly? Are they able to lead a safe, secure, dignified, and meaningful life? Are we future-ready to tackle the challenges arising out of our burgeoning grey population? A plain answer to all these questions is NO! Primarily we only have some conditional cash support/ pension schemes and food supply programmes (from central and state governments) for elderlies, but those are only a small part of the solution. And we are still far away from any comprehensive care policy/programme for elderlies.
India has a ‘National Policy on Older Persons’ (1999) and a National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP) running since 1995, which in essence aimed to provide a social security net to our senior citizens. Over all these years, however, we have only succeeded in a providing a paltry sum, in the form of pension, to a mere 10 percent of our elderly population. There is still no trace of any major interventions on the front of elderly health care, housing, insurance, reemployment, and rehabilitation. India also has a Maintenance and Welfare of Parents & Senior Citizens (MWPSC) Act, enacted in 2007 to legally guard basic human rights and provide a safe and secure living environment to all the senior citizen. However, on this front, too, picture is not very rosy and a large proportion of elderly population is abused verbally (60%), physically (48%), emotionally (37%), and economically (35%) (as reported in a study of 12 cities by HelpAge India, 2011).
Sound policy intervention would do better than the random magics
With such a dismal background, we must ask then, what do such “magic” stories or viral episodes (as that of ‘Baba ka Dhaba’) bring on the table from the perspective of elderlies in India? Not much indeed, except creating a false collective sense of “we-do-care”, which rather does more harm than good. As a society, witnessing such magic stories with happy endings, we live under the impression that those in need are being taken care of. Such random stories and their mega coverage, without any fundamental questions and forward linkages to agenda setting, only eats out news and public debate space reserved to social issues. They fail to mainstream serious questions on welfare of a huge elderly population and disappear without creating any ripples in the numb policy space.
As an individual, while I feel happy to see elderly people getting help from within the society but unfortunately this cannot be the solution, and more so in a country where millions of them are in distress. Occasional media hypes on random stories of suffering elderly individuals, devoid of any meaningful debate, may at maximum evoke localised acts of charity culminating into pleasant magic stories but not a long-lasting policy solution. Any solution would essentially require more than magic stories and shall start with serious questioning and agenda setting on the plights of more than a hundred million elderly population of India. The Baba ka Dhaba story could have been a starting point for us to engage in serious policy debates on the condition of elderly population and discussions for a comprehensive care policy/programme, but it appears that we missed the opportunity.
Dr. Chandra is an assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai. The views and opinions expressed in this article are personal.
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