An ageing India may appear to be a distant issue, but considering its rapid pace and scale, it requires an immediate action
By Neha Chauhan
Population in many countries across Asia and parts of Europe is ageing rapidly, with the number of older people projected to double by 2050. Luckily, for India, the demographic dividend that started in 2005-06 will last till 2055-56. This span is long due to differential population parameters and behaviour among different states. Simply put, demographic dividend can be considered as a period of potential boost in economic productivity that can result due to larger number of working-age population (16-64) in comparison to non-working age share of the population. The impact of the dividend, however, depends upon good health, quality education and skills, job opportunities and a lower proportion of young dependents for existing population.
The India Ageing Report by UNFPA states that “the current percentage of elderly population is expected to rise from 6% (2019) to around 19% by 2050 and though the growth rate of the elderly population dipped slightly in the 1960s and 1980s, it was always higher than the general population and the difference between the two has widened over the period. Undoubtedly, therefore, relatively young India today will turn into a rapidly ageing society in the coming decades.”
Another aspect of changing population parameter is the feminisation of ageing. Data shows that sex ratio of elderly population increased from 938 women to 1,000 in 1971 to 1,033 in 2011 and is projected to reach 1,060 by 2026, with 48% of women falling under widowed category in comparison to 15% of men. This points towards a growing category of widowed and highly dependent category of old women. Feminisation of ageing is not a phenomenon that cannot be dealt from the perspective of better living and health conditions. Healthy ageing will require a life cycle approach that starts early in the childhood and implemented throughout the course of life spanning across adolescents, young people, adulthood and older populations, and can be termed in relation to sexual activity, including before sexual maturity, when sexually mature and unmarried, and after the fertile period. Often, the lifelong effects of sexuality and reproductions such as multiple pregnancies, inadequate support during pregnancy, at the time of childbirth, and in the post-partum period make women more vulnerable to health issues in older age.
Income insecurity adds to the vulnerability of older population. India’s occupation structure reflects that elderly are mostly engaged in the informal sector, with no post-retirement benefits. The government has made incremental progress on issues specific to ageing especially with its National Policy on Older Persons and its flagship Integrated Programme for Older Persons. There are other initiatives such as welfare funds, to take care of the basic needs of senior citizens, particularly food, shelter and healthcare to the destitute elderly. The question, however, is whether the welfare mode for elderly population is enough to maintain the dividend as well as a healthy and productive population?
There are examples from Russia and Thailand, where efforts for elderly-friendly communities and health systems are crucial parts of the strategy for older people. In addition to welfare measures, similar to those in India, some of the key components that are part of the strategy are efforts for stimulating of active long life, using knowledge, skills, labour potential of older generation for economic development, creating avenues for engaging in voluntary employment, adopting housing and transport for elderly, government-supported behaviour change communications to enhance solidarity between generations, and improving medical and social care catering to geriatric needs. There are numerous other innovative examples from other rapidly-ageing or aged societies from across the world.
Finally, an ageing India may appear to be a distant issue, but considering its rapid pace and scale, it requires immediate remedy not just at the policy level, but also in our health, education, employment and physical infrastructure systems.
The author is senior technical advisor, Advocacy & Accountability, International Planned Parenthood Federation (SARO)