Raising awareness of India's elderly

June 2010

Indian old woman making charm bracelets (Photo: Dreamstime)Research on older urban poor is highlighting the contributions and needs of India's older population to policymakers.

The World Health Organisation estimates that, within fifteen years, 75 per cent of the world's population aged over 60 will be living in developing countries. Yet, ageing is relegated to the margins of development policy and practice, with the needs and potential of women and men in later life going largely unnoticed.

India has possibly the highest global concentration of old age poverty. Nearly 71 million Indians were over 60 in 2001; 60 per cent have a fragile access to subsistence, and 30 per cent are living below the poverty line.

At the same time, poor families are choosing to educate their children, making them very dependent on older people's incomes. Their significant contribution to the economy has been largely ignored by policymakers.

A research project led by Dr Penny Vera-Sanso at Birkbeck College has studied over 800 'below poverty line' households in India to understand the factors determining older people's capacity to support themselves or to access support from family and the state.

The findings show that the labour market is segmented by age and gender. Age discrimination starts in the mid-40s for men, while women start working later in married life and work into older age than men. Older urban poor engage in over 30 different trades, supporting themselves and their families. They take on casual/low-status work that younger people don't want - but get crowded out in an economic downturn.

The most important impact of this project has been to highlight the issue of the older urban poor to policymakers, journalists, researchers, activists and civil society organisations, using publications, exhibitions, public hearings and meetings with officials to influence planning decisions and pension policy.

Impact

  • The photo exhibition 'We too contribute!': the elderly poor and Chennai’s economy made visible the contribution of older people to the family and economy. The exhibition was covered extensively across Tamil and English language media and led to new student research on old age poverty.
  • The researchers' newspaper article on 'Thalaikoothal', a form of euthanasia prevalent in some districts, advocated positive state intervention rather than criminalising the act. This article galvanised the District Collector of Virudhunagar to lead a campaign to protect older people.
  • The media coverage of older people and their work encouraged a journalist to cover pension access stories - to the point that a number of people denied pensions are getting them.

Further information