When Aishwarya Rai Bachchan – former Miss Universe, Indian star, and a Hollywood actress – was interviewed by David Letterman in February 2005, one of the questions she was asked, was why she continued to live with her parents. For adult Americans, this seemed to be an alien concept. Why would a super-successful-thirty-year-old-star – a woman whose face dominates billboards in every Indian city – or any thirty-year-old for that matter, choose to live with their parents?
The answer, as Aishwarya put it, is simple: because in the Indian society it’s the way things are done. In India, by and large, women live with their parents till they marry, and men sometimes even after that. That’s just the way it is.
Or, that’s the way it used to be. Now, as India becomes more economically developed, the age-old tradition of joint-families – grandparents, parents, sons and their families, all living under one roof – is slowly changing. More and more urban Indians are choosing to live in a nuclear system – only one family, of parents and children, living together. And in rural India, families are being separated as members move away for greener pastures. This shift has given rise to a relatively new, though globally not so new, problem for India: Looking after the old.
Unlike in the U.S., India does not have a government-run Social Security system, and only recently have concepts like assisted living and retirement housing become somewhat accepted. For some, the idea of living in such places, nice as they may be, is still something of a disgrace, since India prides itself in being a value-system society that teaches the young to respect the old. For an older person forced to rely on someone besides her, or her family for care, is still seen as somewhat scandalous.
The trouble, however, is that there are few other systems that the old can fall back upon, since the state does little for aiding them financially or even medically. In a lot of cases, once the children move away, the old are pretty much left to fend for themselves. And, of course, there have been cases where parents have been ill-treated, considered nothing more than irksome burdens by their children.
So, this being India, the government decided to step in to try and solve the problem and it came up with an amazingly unique way of doing so. It passed a bill, called ‘The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens’, under which children who are found guilty of abandoning their parents can be sentenced to three months in prison and fines. The sentence, which does not allow for an appeal, could be longer for those who ill-treat their parents. Also, under this new law, a parent has the option of taking back a piece of property he or she may have willed to the child, if the latter is found not deserving of it.
Ever since the bill was given the nod by the Parliament, the country has been locked in furious debates about the relevance of such a law, with many arguing that it’s not the government’s business to meddle in family affairs and cannot enforce love and responsibility, acting like a custodian of Indian family values, while shirking its own responsibility of helping the old. Complicating things: the young in India are in as much need as their grand-parents and great-grandparents. A study earlier this year revealed that an alarming number of children – two out of three – in India suffer physical abuse. What about them?
And it’s also not clear how effective it will be, since in India, few parents would end up actually reporting their children – though many old age groups have welcomed the bill, claiming that it is a much needed law. The biggest problem, however, will be in its implementation – in evaluating the cases, and then, of course, in the time that such litigation will take. Indian courts are infamous for backlogs and delays, with cases running into several years before they are even heard in court. In such a situation would senior citizens, provided they even know of their new rights, have the strength to take legal action? And if they did, how many would be able to stay the course and fight it out?
The bill may be well intended, and it does have some positive points about building old age homes, but it remains to be seen how much it will actually benefit the old, and how much of it will really be implemented. The Indian government is known for proudly announcing funds for the needy – drought relief, starving farmers, or even war widows – but, depressingly, very little of this actually reaches the people it’s meant for.
Perhaps it is time the government thought a little deeper about providing real help to the elderly.