Famous for its culture of respect for the elderly, India is taking this tradition to an extreme with a new law that, if approved, could see children who fail to look after their elderly parents sent to jail.
Amid a rapidly transforming economy, social change in India has been swift and often brutal. Nuclear units have increasingly replaced the extended family networks of old, undermining the role of the grandparent as the revered head of the family.
The proposed Bill, listed for debate in this parliament session, reflects broad concern that the elderly are not faring well in modern India.
Under the proposal, parents would be able to demand maintenance from their offspring, and children who fail to provide for their parents financially could be sentenced to a month in prison; those who abuse their parents risk a longer sentence.
“Children, who take their parents to a holy place, for example, and simply abandon them there, would be punished with a three-month sentence,” one of the bureaucrats drafting the Bill for the ministry of social justice and empowerment said, insisting on anonymity because work on the bill is still in progress.
With a Prime Minister who is considered positively youthful at 74, a president who will turn 76 later this year, and the nation's two most powerful opposition leaders well into their 80s, India is a perfect example of a gerontocracy.
According to Himanshu Rath of Agewell, a charity providing support to the elderly, the customary public show of respect for the elderly is not always reflected in private.
The introduction to the Older Persons’ Maintenance, Care and Protection Bill says that with the “gradual, but definite withering of the joint family system”, a large number of parents are now “perceived as a burden”, “may face violence and neglect” and are no longer being maintained by their children. “There is an apparent need to compel the progeny to perform the responsibilities which they have towards their parents in their old age,” the document states.
Gitanjali Prasad, author of "The Great Indian Family," a study published last year, said family structures were changing fast."With the arrival of the Western work model, India is becoming a very achievement-driven society," he noted. "Often people find they can't take time off to look after their elderly parents. This mattered less before, when you had an extended family and there was always someone who could help out. That system wasn't perfect, and there were always disagreements, but even if you didn't love every single one of them, you would still care for them."
Across India, children are leaving the family home to head for the cities in search of better work and moving into small urban apartments, which cannot accommodate the whole family network.
“There has been a trend toward neglect of the elderly,” said the bureaucrat who asked not to be identified.
The children do not give their parents audience. They will not give them adequate food, do not buy them proper clothes, do not provide them with basic medicine. They may have taken away their property. They may send them to sit in a corner of a room alone,” said the bureaucrat. The media have welcomed the proposal, “Bill to protect aging parents from ungrateful children,” The Hindustan Timesdeclared in a front-page headline this week.Macabre stories of callous treatment of elderly parents have become a staple item in the Indian press—the theme an easy shorthand for a perceived crumbling of traditional values as India modernizes. Accounts of 91-year-olds thrown out of the family home by the grandchildren are increasingly familiar, as are lurid tales of grandmothers who, on being discharged from a hospital, are abandoned at the crematorium to die by children unwilling to continue caring for them at home.
According to the 2001 Census, the average household size in India has dropped from close to six in 1981, to around four in 2001. Meanwhile, life expectancy for India’s eight crore people aged over 60 is increasing, which means fewer children are looking after their parents for longer periods.
Mathew Cherian, chief executive of HelpAge India,said this put new strains on relationships. His organization has seen a doubling of complaints from old people about abuse from their children—from ill-treatment to property theft—in the space of five years, he said.
In theory, children are already legally bound to maintain their parents under the Indian Penal Code, but because of the slow pace of the legal system, cases are rarely filed, or by the time they are settled, the claimant is most likely dead. The Bill proposes to take a more targeted, swifter approach to resolving claims, on a three-month deadline.
However, some activists see the law as a distraction from a fundamental problem—which is not that children do not want to care for their parents, but that some are unable to provide for them. More than 90% of the population has no state pension, and the vast majority remain dependent on their offspring. The Bill does not explain how themselves financially struggling children can find extra resources for their parents. “I don’t think India is culturally ready for the idea of parents taking their children to court,” said Aabha Chaudhary of Anugraha, an organization that has studied neglect of the elderly in three states.
The bill also proposes building more retirement homes. Activists point out that these homes remain anathema in the country, where there are still only 3,000 of them, and where most people resist the Western practice of putting parents into care.“There is still a huge stigma with sending parents into a home. It would be practically impossible to announce that you’d done so in public,” Rath of Agewell said.