Distorted balance of India’s population pyramid: Ageing population creates pressing economic concern

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Published: February 13, 2020 5:00:39 AM

With declining birth and death rates having distorted the balance of the population pyramid, social security for senior citizens has become a pressing economic concern

The figure of 67 years is from the 2011 Census. The recent (October 2019) National Health Profile projects a further increase to around 69 years.

Minoo Masani is probably all but forgotten. He was a thinker, writer, politician, and parliamentarian. When I was in primary school, I read a book by him that left a deep impression at the time. Even now, Our India, published in 1940, is a model of how one should write for the young. “Learned professors in our universities have estimated that the ordinary peasant in our country with a wife and three children has to live along with his family on much less than `27 a month, which is the average income for all kinds of Indians rolled into one…If, for instance, a baby brother or sister were to be born in your home—don’t mention this to your mother or father, it’ll only hurt their feelings, because grown-ups are like that!—the little baby, sad to say, is due to die at the age of 27.”

Data for 1940 were, of course, imperfect. Reliable numbers primarily existed for British India. 1951 Census gave us a life expectancy (at birth) figure of 32 years. Since then, as is to be expected, life expectancy has improved. If I go by the 2011 Census, it is 67 years. There are male/female differences and inter-state differences, too. For instance, in Kerala, life expectancy is pretty close to the average life expectancy in USA.

But, the figure of 67 years is from the 2011 Census. The recent (October 2019) National Health Profile projects a further increase to around 69 years. If you live in urban India, life expectancy is around 72.2 now (73.5, if you happen to be female). We will have firm figures after Census 2021. In a few years, if you happen to live in Kerala and are female, you can hope to live till the age of 78.6 years. Not surprisingly, with birth rates declining, the absolute and relative shares of old (more than 60 years of age) population are increasing.

The absolute share is 13% in Kerala, and more than 10% in Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Tamil Nadu. All such figures are life expectancy at birth. What is life expectancy at age of 60? If I survived till sixty, in 1990, average life expectancy was another 14.75 years. Life tables are often estimates, based on surveys. Subject to that, if I survived till 60, I could expect to survive till almost 75. But, that was in 1990. Today, if I survive till the age of 60, my average life expectancy will be another 17.63 years. Therefore, if I have survived till 60, I can expect to survive till I am almost 78. If I have survived till 70, I can expect to live till I am 80, and, depending on the state, even 85. Life expectancy increases with age, so to speak.

Better access to medical treatment, and improvements in living conditions have led to increases in life expectancy (at birth), and convergence in life expectancy (at birth) figures between India and more advanced countries. However, given India’s heterogeneity, that convergence is more marked for some segments. Convergence in life expectancy at the age of 70 years between India and more advanced countries is more. Stated simply, if you have survived till seventy, there will be little difference in life expectancy between you and someone residing in USA, though perhaps not Japan. You might not live as long as Lucy d’Abreu.

If you don’t remember who that was, she is the oldest recorded Indian. Having lived for 113 years and 197 days, she died in December 2005. Before you correct me, Mahashta Murasi (the cobbler from Varanasi who is still alive) is 179 years old, having retired as a cobbler at the age of 122 years. At the last kumbha mela, we also met Swami Sivananda, who was born in 1896 in Behala, Kolkata. But, I don’t know whether Mahashta Murasi and Swami Sivananda “officially” hold the records. Even if you don’t live to be as old as these venerable people, 85 or 90 might soon be the new normal.

Recently, I a met a gentleman who is about to touch ninety. He told me he has just done his Will 3.0. In Will 1.0, he left his house to his son, who is approaching sixty-five now. In Will 2.0, he modified his last testament to leave the house to his grandson, who is approaching forty now. In Will 3.0, he has left the house to his great grandson, who is fifteen. If this gentleman survives for a few years more, he might do a Will 4.0 and leave the house to his great-great grandson. Pre-Independence, our social norms had two generations in mind. It then switched to three generations and our attitudes are often based on that, but we are moving towards four generations, and even five.

There are economic consequences, too. Let’s say retirement age is sixty-five. (Obviously, I am not talking only about government.) What will the 65+ live on? Will they have a post-retirement job? Will they survive on the principal/interest of their capital? Will they be funded through social security? How will that social security be managed? Any social security system presupposes a balanced population pyramid, and declining birth and death rates have brought shocks to that pyramid. In 2019, for the first time in Independent India, the absolute size of the under-15 population is estimated to have declined. All questions have answers. But, I suspect some of our present answers are based on life expectancy of seventy, not eighty-five.

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