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Old dilemma, new law

Old dilemma, new law

Through my work with senior citizens, I often come across aged parents who, after being humiliated and neglected by their children, refuse to take legal action—even in situations when they have enough evidence to win a suit and demand to be looked after and be compensated by their children.

The dynamics of the relationship between senior citizens and their children—the foundations of which are fundamentally based on emotions—cannot entirely be corrected or defined by a law. As most people tend to believe, as do I, that respect and willingness to take care of old parents is a matter of will.

Yet, I have my reasons to believe that if executed the right way once it becomes an Act, the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Bill, introduced in Parliament in March, can make a world of difference to the condition of senior citizens in our country.

As of now, the three main provisions of the Bill are:

It is a legal obligation for children and heirs to provide maintenance to senior citizens. It also permits state governments to establish old-age homes in every district.

Senior citizens who are unable to maintain themselves shall have the right to apply to a maintenance tribunal, seeking a monthly allowance from their children or heirs. State governments may set up maintenance tribunals in every subdivision of a district to decide the level of maintenance. Appellate tribunals may be established at the district level.

State governments shall set the maximum monthly maintenance allowance. The Bill caps the maximum monthly allowance at Rs10,000 per month.

In as much as the Bill makes it mandatory for “heirs" to take care of senior citizens, the Bill also takes into account childless couples. More importantly, it is the first time that the law is being seen as a way of safeguarding the rights of the old. So far, the law is applicable only when there is a case of neglect or abuse.

Some activist groups are opposed to this Bill because they believe it shifts the onus of protecting senior citizens from the state to the family. In other words, by implementing the law, the state would be shirking its own responsibility towards the old. But the reverse is also true; if the state alone is responsible, the role of children and family, who know best the specific needs of the person concerned, becomes irrelevant. There are other clauses that need revision and tweaking but, overall, it is welcome legislation for senior citizens.

My only area of concern about the Act is my overall cynicism about the system of justice in our country. Our Constitution does not define a standard age for someone to qualify as a senior citizen. In some cases it’s 55 and in some it’s 60, depending on a person’s circumstances.

I am sceptical about how far the maintenance tribunals at the district and subdivisional levels will be effective in evaluating cases with efficiency and on time, especially so in smaller towns where the old are less likely to be aware or aggressive about their rights.

It will be a challenge for activists and government bodies at all levels—of course, senior citizens will stand to benefit if this Bill indeed becomes an Act.

(Sheilu Sreenivasan is founder and president of the Dignity Foundation, a non-profit that works for the rights of senior citizens in India.)

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