by Akhil Katyal
Ashiya Begum, an elderly widow in Andhra Pradesh, had worked as a road construction labourer after her husband’s death. She recalls that when all the workers used to have lunch by the construction site, she tried to sleep under the bushes as there was no food and it was better than seeing others eat. When the pangs of hunger grew insistent, she would drink a lot of water and then tie her saree end tightly around her stomach and continue to work. At night if the children cried and she had nothing to feed them, she peeped out of her tent to neighbours’ utensils and used to beg a glass of ganji (water which is to be drained out of rice once it is cooked) from them. Everybody got 5-6 spoonfuls of ganji before sleeping. Sometimes in the evening, after the road construction work, she cooked in other people’s houses. They gave her four rotis that the entire family ate…‘Even if I tell you (what we eat to survive),’ she told the researcher, ‘will you ever be able to feel what we eat?’
- from the ‘Study on Destitution and Hunger’, Centre for Equity Studies, Delhi
Old age mostly inspires the sentiment of the universal in us, the aesthetics of the general, so much so that when we speak of the old, we often let go of the specific and relish statements that tend to be as wide-ranging as they could be naïve: the old are wiser, we say, the age is just a number, our frames turn more literary, more contemplative, it is the dusk of life, we think, or sometimes being metaphorical, we consider to be old to be in a second childhood. The last one is Aristophanes, no less.
It is almost as if we formally link old age with the idea of summing up, always using it to make truistic statements not for a person per say but for a species. Most of the remarks about the elderly end up being an indistinct précis of what it means to be human, generally, as if the old cannot help but be representative of some general malaise. ‘The complete life, the perfect pattern,’ the English playwright and novelist Somerset Maugham wrote, overstretching an abstraction, ‘includes old age as well as youth and maturity. The beauty of the morning and the radiance of noon are good, but it would be a very silly person who drew the curtains and turned on the light in order to shut out the tranquility of the evening.’ (barf).
It is almost as if to be specific in relation to old people seems an anathema to us. Gerontology can be psychological, we concede, it can certainly be biological, it can even be literary, but we have instinctively arranged it in such a way that it cannot be that which we think of as political, that is, it cannot be about the varying public relationships between people and of people with their collective institutions. The old are made to stand in for all the forces of generality, for the civilizational, for the other-worldly, for the cosmic, but we get our knickers in knots if the old resist this and come to us as full-bodied, this-worldly political creatures.
It was mainly this presumption, one which does not count old people as important political factors, whether as contributors to the national economy or as petitioners to the government offices, that was exploded in the recently concluded Pension Parishad - the 5-day dharna in central Delhi where almost 3000 old people, representing their organizations from at least twenty different States, asked the Central government for a universal, non-contributory pension scheme of Rs. 2000 for all Indians above the age of 55 who are not already covered by pensions of higher amounts. It became more than clear from the first day itself that the campaign was framed not as a plea for charity – something that would have fit well with the benign view of the aged, hinted above – but as a demand for a fundamental measure of dignity and rights for the elderly in this country. One of the major slogans of the Parishad was: ’Har hath ko kam do, kam ka pura dam do, budhape mein araam do’ (‘Give work to every hand, give full pay for all work, give rest in old age’).
Every speech that was made on the dharna stage, every song that was sung, every representation that came from different cities, towns and villages, had one strand running through them: that the aged definitely conceived of themselves within the umbrella of the political, that they positioned themselves as vital actors who were making a considered claim on their own State. These were the elderly who made specific, concrete demands to the members of the Parliament, to the President and the NAC, and who offered them a detailed roadmap of how to go about instituting such a scheme, and who, most importantly, were pushing for a vision of India as a country that would take each of its citizens along in its monumental bid for growth. The protestors were very clear that theirs’ is going to be one of more important campaigns of this decade, one which will decide on the future of India and whether it is able to harness its economic growth to strengthen its social security net and is able to provide food, shelter and other basic means of sustenance to all its citizens, not only to those who are BPL, not only to those who need it most, hence thankfully skirting these thoughtless categories that are increasingly compromising the way we can imagine inclusive progress in this country.
This campaign fills up a major lack in India’s pension economics. The campaigners argue that whereas employment linked pension is restricted to the elderly in the organized sector or to those who are among the rich and upper middle classes, the group that is most in need of old age pension remains without any framework of support in the old age. This is the unorganized sector which has been the backbone of India’s much talked about growth in the last decade. They are the ones who have literally carried it on their backs. There are millions of women and men like Ashiya Begum, who are undeniably at the centre of the process that makes the places in which we live and rest but who mostly inhabit the furthest corners of our concerns. The comforts of the well-off are always based on the strategic appearances and the disappearances of those who work for them: maids, vendors, rickshaw-pullers, cheap construction laborers, among several others. Between the year 2000 and 2010, the campaigners argue, the organized sector added less than 0.3% workers annually to their workforce, while the GDP of the country more than doubled, with the annual rate of more than 7.5%. It is blindingly clear that much of the contribution to this growth came from the workers in the unorganized sector, who would work in the most difficult physical circumstances and without adequate nutrition and rest. The universal pension, that guarantees at least half of the national minimum wages, would be the acknowledgement of the centrality of their work to a nation’s career. It would be a payback, a recognition, not a charity sop.
The campaigners are further resolute about the idea that the APL/BPL categorization has to be avoided to make this pension scheme truly effective. They rely on influential developmental economists such as Jean Dreze who have argued recently that ‘not only is the official poverty line extremely low and, hence, not meant as an eligibility condition for social support, identifying BPL [itself] is very difficult. A BPL Census invariably turns out to be a hit-or-miss affair. Third, someone who is poor today may not be poor tomorrow and vice versa, but the BPL lists are very rigid…Fourth, BPL targeting is very divisive; it undermines the strength and unity of public pressure for a functional PDS.’ This divisiveness of the APL/BPL categories is a massive roadblock especially in relation to pensions. Let us understand how.
First of all, it is never clear that the elderly people are not being neglected even in the well-off households. No BPL census, Dreze argues, can ascertain the distribution of resources within the family. The pension scheme as it stands in India today, restricted as it is by this idea of the poverty line, is neither universal nor adequate. Only one in every five person over 60 years old in India, a number that is hitting against ten crore, receives old age pension, attached as it is to the BPL criterion. This pension can be as low as Rs. 200 in some states and only about 50% of those eligible in our country get it. Further, this divisiveness produces tragic on-ground situations where an elderly person receiving this pittance of a pension is made ineligible for the benefits accorded to the BPL family, such as, if we take the example of Bihar where the pension rate is Rs. 200, an elderly person very often loses out on the Antyodaya scheme on account of being covered under old age pension, necessitating her to pay about 90 rupees more for 25 kilos of grain. Apart from this she also loses out on additional 10 kilos of grain. Such policy barriers can be life threatening for the elderly people living in that kind of poverty. A universal pension scheme that does not deny other PDS benefits is the only way forward to redress such dreadful situations, where sometimes old people have to wait for the deaths of other old people in order to become eligible for the smallest of amounts.
The other major demand that the campaigners are absolutely clear about is that the time for the universal pension scheme is now, that we cannot afford to wait any longer. At a recent television debate on this issue on CNN-IBN, Gursharan Das, the former Managing Director of Procter and Gamble, effectively brought together the opinions of the many who have been resisting even the fledgling welfare policies in India in the name of the ‘fiscal deficit’, he debated this timing of the Pension campaign with its representative Nikhil Dey, saying that ‘we have just been downgraded, the country is in a serious financial crisis right now, we should be cutting back on subsidies… a poor country,’ he said, ‘cannot begin to behave like a rich country’. Then he offered a necessarily far placed idea of when the timing could be right for such a scheme: this, he said, would be when the per capita income in India would be $5000 p.a., at least, till then, he said, ‘you cannot destroy a nation’s culture by creating entitlements’.
Nikhil Dey responded to Das with some obvious indignation but much precision. He offered examples of several low and middle-income countries that have instituted universal or near universal non-contributory old age pension systems. In doing so, he wanted to suggest that which should be painfully obvious to all of us: that there is no linear time-frame which can be operative in regard to this question, that we cannot wait till that mythical ideal time is upon us to institute such a scheme. There are several examples in which such a time-frame used to argue for deferral has been rightfully short-circuited. The country Lesotho, which has a per capita GDP that is about two-third that of India’s, pays the equivalent of 2300 rupees per month to its elderly as pension. Kenya with just half the per capita GDP of India pays over 1250 rupees per month. Even Nepal, with per capita GDP about one third that of India’s, pays a pension of 313 rupees per month to its elderly.
It is clear that we cannot defer this question. Not only have we to answer it now, we also have to add some other vital questions to our basket: for instance, if we say we cannot afford the 2 lakh crore p.a. that would be the cost of running this scheme, then we should begin asking as to how can we make it affordable? We should also ask if we can afford the lakhs of crores we give to the rich MNCs in tax subsidies, and whether, we can afford this entire current regime of taxation which is easier on the rich? We can then think concretely of employing a particular cess on those industries that have been the beneficiaries of the unorganized sector labour to fund the pension for those men and women who worked for it, for what is pension after all, Dey asked, if not ‘a part of your working life later extended to security’, thus, it is never charity, but as something earned throughout life. Finally, we have to counterbalance this question of financial affordability with the question of moral affordability and treat them always as one and the same question: ‘Can we afford,’ Dey asked at the end of the televised debate, ‘to let our elderly die without a concern?’ You cannot vaguely agree on moral terms on this scheme but backtrack on the question of finance. We have to mobilize the political will to create the resources for this scheme. This political will will never be a given, it has to be created, painstakingly.
One of the most difficult things about old age is always the effective invisibility that comes with it: the invisibility in public space, the invisibility in state policy, the increasing invisibility even in the spaces of the family. This is the kind of invisibility which creates the climate for understanding the old only in terms of inoffensive, general truisms rather than in specific, political details because they end up occupying only the shadowy edges of our lives. As more and more farmers and artisans are turned into daily wage laborers who migrate to bigger cities for livelihood, all in accordance to our changing economic policies, India has more old people living on their own than ever before. We have a population of about ten crore elderly people, more than one sixth of which live alone or only with another elderly person, their children having migrated for work. Often, these elderly people have to continue working far into their age brackets and have to stretch their physical limits in order to have any chance of survival. If they were to stop working, many of them would starve to a lonely death, as is vouched by the fact that most number of deaths from cold-waves, homelessness and starvation in Indian cities are those of the elderly people. We have to create a climate in which the elderly can make a shattering re-entry into the terrain of visibility, into our cities, onto our pavements, into our policy documents and most importantly into our ageist imaginations. The path towards their dignity has to be laid out with this fundamental guarantee of financial independence. The Pension Parishad is only the beginning of this long overdue redressal. After all, at its root pension has the Latin etymon ofpendere, which is to weigh. What we make of this campaign will decide how India weighs its own elderly, in what esteem it holds them, whether and how much it makes them count.