Old is gold?
A cataract made worse due to age is unable to hide the outpouring in his eyes! His eyes are as expressive as they were about a decade ago. They loudly tell a story which he does not allow his lips to utter.
This is a story of lament, helplessness and being overwhelmed by an unwanted feeling. A reluctant Ram Singh chooses his words more carefully than even his steps which bear ample signs of health failing him.
Singh has been coming to Delhi every year for the last decade or more. It is the sight of his ever growing grand children that draws him out of the hills to the capital. From being beholden to him 24x7, the grand kids now have a substitute in the digital space. Singh does not mind the emotional gap so long as he can even faintly see them grow.
It is the soaring mercury though that he pins the blame on for all his problems. For he misses the hills in the concrete that engulfs him here. But an undeterred Singh makes it a habit to romance the modest greenery the apartment park has on offer; only when the cricket crazy kids leave the park safe enough for him to flavour the fresh air outside his son’s two-bedroom flat in the capital.
This summer his son has been preoccupied with pressing office engagements to delay accompanying his father to his native place in Uttarakhand. For Singh it has been a date with dates as his wait to reunite with himself gets longer and longer.
Singh, many like the oldest old in the country, continues to slide down dangerously the rickety governance framework in the country. They (the elderly) are neither an active vote-bank nor can be touted as a demographic dividend (Not that the Indian administration’s engagement with the majority youth population in the country has yielded any great dividend).
According to a Helpage India’s 2011 Survey, 36 per cent of the oldest old have a monthly household income of less than Rs 2,500 (Sample Average = Rs. 4381); remittance from children is the main source of income - while 72 per cent were financially depend on others, 79 per cent from among them financially depend on sons.
The general apathy towards the old at all levels is set to snowball into a major crisis for the country (if it is not already one). According to the 2006 World Population Prospects, India's 80 plus will increase more than six times from existing 78 lakh to about 5.14 crore by 2050. Now, 20 per cent of this category in India suffers from Alzheimer's.
The 65 plus population is expected to quadruple from 6.4 crore in 2005 to 23.9 crore, while those aged 60 and above will increase from 8.4 crore to 33.5 crore over the next 43 years. That may be quite far off for many of us, but for Singh and millions like him the stark reality stares them in their face.
Can someone alter this? Yes, if only there is a political will to do so? A recent study says 22 per cent of elderly in this country by last occupation were skilled labourers and only one fifth of these were currently engaged in any economic activity. Delhi and NCR witnessed the lowest (seven percent) engagement while Chennai had the highest (38 per cent) among the skilled.
Ironically, a slightly bigger percentage is of elderly who are not even skilled but have a yen for life like you and me! (They have a question for mandarins at National Skill Development Corporation: Is it only for the young?)
The survey said a strong 29 per cent of those preoccupied economically were involved in petty trade, which means essentially petty income and ever rising dependence on others.
Why cannot our domestic retail leaders who are among the ‘who is who’ of India Inc engage this workforce in a meaningful way? And when Walmart comes, it might adopt the old as part its CSR initiative and make a difference on the ground.
Should there be no takers (a likely situation for it is fashionable to not court the old in India because we are essentially a ‘young nation’), Singh can live his dream of one day making a grand comeback like Bollywood first superstar Rajesh Khanna who survived a health scare to reunite with his fans, courtesy, Havells!
<i>[The author is a senior journalist and Editor-Zee Research Group (ZRG)]</i>
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