Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Ask not for whom the bell tolls

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Senior citizens spend their twilight years here in warm company and a caring environment [/h2]

Story and photos by Fayeza Pathan 

It is 6 pm and time for dinner. Senior citizens with shaky feet and arthritic knees shuffle to the canteen. Some hold fancy cups, others, steel tumblers in their wobbly hands. They all line up to get their share of milk. “I have to walk carefully. If I spill the milk, I won’t get it again,” says an old man with a smile on his lined face.

Today, they look forward to dinner as it will be different from the usual menu; it’s sponsored by a family. The hallway is filled with the chanting of a bhajan: “Hey Ram, jay Ram jay jay Ram”, before the first bite is taken. This is the daily ritual at Jivan Sandhya Old Age Home in Naranpura, Ahmedabad, a clean and spartan place for those in the twilight years of their life.

As per Census 2011, there are 7.7 crore senior citizens in India, which is 7.5 percent of the total population. By 2026, the number of elderly is expected to rise to 17.32 crores, according to the Department of Social Justice.


“It’s been three years since I saw my son. I haven’t visited my home in 17 years. It’s my fate,” says Sanyukta Pandya, 86, with a resigned air. Nonetheless, she is happy with her two roommates. As she reminiscences, she has a faraway look. She is an MA in social psychology and worked in the Department of Rural Development in Gujarat for Rs. 130 a month, with an additional Rs. 15 for working on women empowerment issues. “I had worked for the development of the tribal population in Ranchi,” adds Sanyukta with pride. She retired in 1986 but doesn’t get any pension from the government. Despite buying a flat, she is compelled to stay here as she didn’t get along with her daughter-in-law. Sayunkta pays the rent here from the money she got as gratuity. She doesn’t want to be dependent on anyone.

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Babubhai showing a picture of his trip to Manali with friends during his
younger day


As per Census 2011, there are 7.7 crore senior citizens in India, which is 7.5 percent of the total population. By 2026, the number of elderly is expected to reach 17.32 crore, according to the Department of Social Justice, Gujarat. With rising life expectancy, the problems faced by them too are on an upswing.

On top of that, higher medical costs means that children are hard pushed to take care of old parents. As for the government, there is little inclination to really take care of the elderly. The Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme, formulated under the Ministry of Rural Development, has a provision for giving Rs. 200 monthly to those over 60 years and Rs. 500 to those over 80 years who are below the poverty line. But this amount is too meager and doesn’t cover everyone.


Gauriben entering her room after morning prayers


Meanwhile, life continues in this old-age home. Each room has three iron beds and three cupboards. Some rooms have small temples in the corner. While the ground floor is occupied by women, the first floor is given to men. There are swings near the entrance of the home. This is the only recreation for them, and many senior citizens can be seen sitting around, chit-chatting.

The regime here is strict. Wake-up time is 5.30 am, and they assemble in the prayer hall at 6 am. Prayer lasts for one-and-a-half hours. Breakfast, served at 8 am, often consists of tea and biscuits. After that, some go for exercise, while others sit in their rooms or chat with friends. Light lunch is served at 11.30 am, after which inmates rest till 3 pm, when it is time for tea. Visitors are allowed from 4 pm to 6 pm. After dinner is over at 6.30 pm, inmates gather in the hall to watch TV.


(Left) Sanyukta Pandya discussing news with Dinukaka

Dinukaka, 90, has been living here for 18 years with his wife. He got married when he was 20 and his wife, 15. They had never seen each other before that. He was a headmaster and supervised 42 teachers.

“I loved administration work”, he says. After retirement in 1961, he opened a shop to repair watches, but it incurred losses. The couple now spends Rs. 400-500 on medicines. While Dinukaka is hard of hearing, his wife has a tough time walking. Though he has two sons, he says regretfully that he couldn’t give them much education due to his responsibilities. While one son is an auto driver, the other does a small business.


 Sanyukta Pandya drapping a sari in the room she shares with other inmates


Problems cropped up after both got married and didn’t want to share the responsibility of looking after their parents. “I sold my house and gave them Rs. 1.5 lakh each,” says the aggrieved father. He and his wife, then, came to live here.

According to the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, children are liable to provide monthly expenditure to their parents. The act also includes revocation of transfer of property by senior citizens in case of negligence by relatives. Under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code, penal provision for abandoning senior citizens by children or relatives has been mentioned. But an elderly person who is deprived of basic necessities will hardly fight for rights in India’s labyrinthine courts.


Sanyukta Pandya standing in the prayer hall

When Dinukaka came to know about this act, he went to the collector’s office to ask for a monthly expenditure from his elder son, who is doing well in life. He wrote an application asking for money. But the son didn’t pay. “I, then, dragged him to court for a meager amount of Rs. 2,000,” says Dinukaka.


 Resident Fulchandbhai Barot, 76, worked at Navjivan Press during his early years

According to Global Watch Age Index (GWAI), prepared by Helpage International and United Nations, India ranks 73rd out of 91 countries on well-being of elderly people. Countries like Chile, Bolivia and Sri Lanka, with high poverty levels, rank better than India. Bolivia even came up with Renta Dignidad (the Dignity Pension), a universal pension scheme, after rewriting the constitution. Chile ranks 19th in GWAI. It implemented Acceso Universal de Garantias Explicitas, which offers financial protection to elderly persons. In India, sadly, there is no protection for senior citizens, either in aid or pension.

This is no country for old people.



(Left) Women relaxing with their friends



Dinukaka having lunch with his wife in the mess

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