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The Second Childhood

There has been a shifting of responsibility from the family to the government or State. Indian society has a long cherished tradition to respect and protect the elders. Old age is a harsh truth of life, one that is considered as the second childhood of a person. This is the time when the old seek to receive something from the children

Anupriyo Mallick | New Delhi |

The Sanskrit expressions, Matru Devo Bhav and Pitru Devo Bhav, reflect regard for parents. During the ancient era, parents were worshiped as living Gods and Goddesses and placed on a high pedestal. But nowadays due to various problems and the nuclear family system, aged parents are regarded as a burden by many sons and daughters. There is thus a shifting of responsibility from the family to the government or State. Indian society has a long cherished tradition to respect and protect the elders.

Old age is a harsh truth of life, one that is considered as the second childhood of a person. This is the time when the old seek to receive something from the children. Far from it. The old persons are being neglected by their children and society and are compelled to live a meaningless and painful life either in an old-age home or in their own home. Grandparents play a very important role to develop a child to become a responsible citzens.

But because of today’s nuclear family system, the feelings of the children towards their parents are changing. The children want to live their own life without any interference, let alone shouldering of responsibility. Laws, welfare schemes and policies for elderly have been implemented by the Government. Till 2007, there was no special or separate legislation exclusively for Senior Citizens. However, efforts have been made by the Government to address the woes of Senior Citizens. On 3 March 2006, Sushma Swaraj had tried to introduce a Bill titled “Senior Citizens (Maintenance, Protection and Welfare) 2006, but the Bill could not proceed any further. Thereafter, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, through the then Minister, Meira Kumar, introduced the Bill on 9 March 2007, titled as “The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Bill 2007” in the Lok Sabha.

The basic objective of the Bill was to provide effective remedies for the maintenance and welfare of parents and Senior Citizens. The bill has now become an Act, which received presidential on 31 December 2007. To make the procedure easier, less expensive and to be on the fast track, the Government has brought into force a completely new legislation ~ “The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007”. As per UNESCO estimates, the number of aged (60+) is likely to double by 2025. In India, the population of the old has increased from nearly 2 crore in 1951 to 7.2 crore in 2001.

In the other words, about 8 per cent of the total population is above 60. The figure is likely to cross 18 per cent by 2025. The Government of India declared the so-called National Policy on Older Persons in 1999. It recognized certain rights of the aged, while pledging the government’s responsibility towards providing economic and social security along with healthcare and protection of life and property of the aged people. In spite of the fact that the policy was declared in 1999, even after decade no steps have been taken to implement the same. There was strong and consistent pressure from different NGOs and a demand by the aged and senior citizens’ on the government regarding implementation through legislation. This led to the passing of the legislation in 2007. There has been a sharp increase in crimes against the elderly, according to a survey conducted in 2018 by Helpage India, a non-governmental organization which fights isolation, poverty and neglect of the elderly. Keeping this in the backdrop, the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007 has been amended and the Union Cabinet on 11 December 2019 approved the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which envisages maintenance and welfare of parents and senior citizens for ensuring their basic needs, safety and security, establishment, management, and regulation of institutions and services, and rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

Those who intentionally abuse their parents or senior citizens under their care and protection or abandon them may be sentenced to six months’ imprisonment or slapped with a fine of Rs 10,000 or both, according to a bill. The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens (Amendment) Bill, 2019, piloted by Social Justice and Empowerment Minister, Thaawarchand Gehlot, also has provisions for the elderly to claim maintenance and for mandatory registration of senior citizens’ care homes and other such institutions which will have to comply with prescribed minimum standards. The bill defines “abuse” as physical, verbal, emotional and economic abuse, neglect and abandonment, causing assault, injury, physical or mental suffering. “Children” in relation to a parent or a senior citizen means son or daughter, whether biological, adoptive or step-child and includes the son-inlaw, daughter-inlaw, grandson, grand-daughter and legal guardians of minor children.

The bill provides for the establishment of a tribunal for senior citizens to file claims for maintenance and assistance and such applications from those above 80 years of age should be disposed of within 60 days. Only in exceptional circumstances and for reasons to be recorded in writing, the tribunal may extend the period only once for a maximum of 30 days. For other senior citizens or parents, their applications will have to be settled by the tribunal within 90 days.

According to the legislation, there will be a nodal officer at each police station, not below the rank of an assistant sub-inspector, to deal with the issues relating to parents and senior citizens. Similarly, every district will have a special police unit for senior citizens’ welfare and such a unit will have to be headed by a police officer, not below the rank of DSP. The state government has to appoint the maintenance officer to ensure implementation of the order of maintenance and this officer shall be a point of contact for the parent or senior citizen to liaison and coordinate with them.

According to the statement of objects and reasons appended to the Bill, “with the gradual breakdown of the joint family system, the cases of neglect, crime, exploitation and abandonment of parents and senior citizens are in the rise”. Various High Courts have also issued orders directing the government to review the provisions of the original Act, 2007. The Bill states that the “parent” means father or mother, whether biological, adoptive or step-parent and includes fatherin-law, mother-in-law and grandparents, whether or not a senior citizen.

The children have to maintain their parents in such a way that they “lead a life of dignity”. Similar is the obligation of a relative to maintain a childless senior citizen provided such a relative has sufficient means to do so and is either in possession of, or shall inherit, the property of such a senior citizen after his death. The tribunal, if necessary, can refer the issue of maintenance of a senior citizen/parent to a conciliation officer and the latter has to give his findings within 15 days from the date of his nomination. While determining the maintenance, the tribunal may take into consideration the standard of living of the parent or senior citizen and earnings of such a parent and of the children or relative. The tribunal has powers to levy a fine on those who fail to maintain their parents/senior citizens and if they violate the law, they can be imprisoned for up to one month or till the maintenance payment is made, whichever is earlier.

The Bill enables the government to ensure that all government and private hospitals have beds especially earmarked for senior citizens and separate OPD queues for the old. A dedicated helpline number will be available for senior citizens in every state to hghlight their problems. The definition of ‘maintenance’ has been expanded to include safety and security of the parents besides taking care of their food, clothing, housing and healthcare obligations, which were missing in the earlier Act.

(The writer is with Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning in Management (EIILM), Kolkata)