Last week, a United Nations affiliate released a seminal document on the future status of the elderly in India. The prognosis was illuminating but scary, especially given how ill-prepared or oblivious public policy is to the emerging problem.

Yet, comprehensive media coverage or any public discussion eluded the report. Presumably, it is a case of out of sight, out of mind. With the present demography so heavily skewed in favour of the youth, the concept of an ageing population is far removed. Alternatively, weightier news breaks such as the Ajmal Kasab execution, Bal Thackeray’s funeral or even the Parliament imbroglio over foreign direct investment in retail served as distractions.

While that may or may not be the case, India has been served up a new problem: dealing with the elderly. On the face of it, with an estimated 65% less than 35 years of age, such a claim about a 1.2 billion populace is a no-brainer. Absolutely. In the short-run, indeed there is no concern; but look at the medium-term, and it is worrying. In the long-term, of course, it is a disaster if business-as-usual (the new governance mantra) persists.

What is concerning demographers is that the demographic transition—from a youthful nation to an older one—is happening much faster than anticipated. There is no exact fix, but it could happen at least a decade earlier.

The first warning was embedded in the population data released by Census 2011. It showed that for the first time, the population in the age category of less than six years declined by a little over 5 million between 2001 and 2011. Demographers are not surprised, given the declining fertility rates; something that is otherwise anecdotally visible to us in atomistic families rapidly populating urban areas.

As the graph shows, the fertility rate declined nationally from 2.9% in 2005 to 2.5% in 2010. The biggest fall is coming out in the two most populous states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the fertility rate fell from 4.2% to 3.5% and 4.3% to 3.7%, respectively. This was a trend that began initially in Kerala but is now rapidly spreading to the rest of the country. To a large extent, it could possibly have been triggered by the unprecedented economic growth seen in the last decade, with the country averaging 9% plus growth in three years, increased longevity and diminishing importance of agriculture as the economy transformed structurally.

In short, what the data is telling us is that the bunching that we see today in the working age group will shift to the elderly (above 60 years) category. This was inevitable, but what is surprising is that this may start happening as early as the next decade, while initially it was thought to happen later. So what we have in the making is a social time bomb—few working people to support a disproportionately larger elderly population—something similar to what is affecting the western world. India, given that it is still very much a developing country and is endowed with the world’s second largest population, is in a much more difficult position.

And, unlike in the rest of the world, in India, men have traditionally outlived women. However, now India has begun to correct this anomaly. Since this trend will endure, what it will do is to feminize the elder category (remarked upon previously in Capital Caculus:http://bit.ly/YfIqsl). Unless the social status of women improves in the country, public policy in India will face a unique challenge. Anyone who has seen Pankaj Butalia’s Widows of Vrindavan can understand the magnitude of the social challenge.

Further, the rapid dismantling of the social structure built around the joint family system, even while the economic growth has failed to be distributed equitably, serves up a double whammy. Not only have we forfeited the earlier back stop facility for elders, but at the same time failed to provide the economic circumstance for them to fend on their own.

This is why it is important to heed the message so compellingly made in the Report on the Status of the Elderly in Select States of India, 2011 by the United Nations Population Fund. Based on a survey conducted in seven states, its summation of the problem is sobering. “The findings of the study clearly highlight that income insecurity, illiteracy, age-related morbidity and physical and economic dependency are factors that tend to make the Indian elderly, and particularly elderly women, vulnerable."

As it rightly concludes, the response has to be “holistic and multidimensional" at the individual, family, community, government and non-governmental levels. However, for that to happen, the problem has to be acknowledged first, something that can come about if the government, first, and the nation, later, can shake off the distractions forced upon itself through self-inflicted wounds.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com

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