Old parents left to fend for themselves, despite welfare law (Social Feature)
New Delhi : With a wall-mounted personal shrine, pictures of deities hanging on walls, a rack containing utensils and a few boxes with biscuits and other eatables -- all crammed into one room in an old-age home here -- Sheela Rani, 75, sits on her bed, reading the scriptures, the only way for her to pass time.
"Life has almost come to end. What is left to do now? My day begins with prayers, ends with remembering god."
Rani, who has a son and two daughters, has been living away from her children for the past 13 years.
"Why do you ask the reason of my being here (in an old-age home away from family)? You know it well. Everyone knows. This is not a thing to question," she told IANS.
"Had my husband been alive, I would have still been at home with my grandchildren around me," she lamented, adding that her husband died 26 years ago and her equation with her son and his wife had not been the same thereafter.
To benefit the 75-year-old inmate of Geeta Bhawan Vridhashram here and others like her, the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, makes it a legal obligation for children and heirs to provide maintenance to parents, by giving a monthly allowance. Maintenance includes provision for food, clothing, residence and medical attendance and treatment.
Why doesn't Rani file a case under this act?
"A mother doesn't fight... she never fights," she stressed.
"I don't have any complaints against my kids. I am not here in this position because they left me or chucked me out of the house. I came by myself. My son wants me to live with him but I don't want to put his marriage at risk because of my sake. That would be too selfish on my part," she said.
Pointing at her roommate, she said: "She has a similar story."
Her roommate, Shanti Anand, 80, might not have anything against her sons, but she was nearly in tears when asked about who among her family members visit her.
"(My) daughters pay visit sometimes but (my) sons..." she felt weepy in the middle of the sentence.
Supreme Court Advocate Manoj Goel, who has been opposing the act for parents welfare since its inception, felt that to deal with the issues of old parents, law is insignificant, even though about 130 countries have opted for similar measures.
"India is very different from countries in the West. Here, we put parents on a pedestal as high as god. The act brought this duty known to be pious to a liability," Goel told IANS.
"Despite having the act in place, parents don't come forward to complain, to avail their rights. Second, the agencies given the job are not implementing it aptly," he said.
According to a survey conducted by HelpAge India on "Elder Abuse and Crime in India", 98 per cent of the respondents said they didn't file a complaint against abuse faced and were unwilling to take any action because of the perception among the elderly that "it would lead to further abuse" and "(create a) sense of shame in the community".
A victim of abuse, K.C. Malhotra, went against the usual trend to file a complaint against his son, but his daughter is now struggling to get justice for him after he passed away last month.
"My father, who breathed his last on July 16 this year, had it in him to fight cancer, but he was shattered by the insufferable indifference and cruelty of his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, who turned their back on him when he needed them the most.
"They engineered a situation and created hell in his own home by denying him basic human rights, including food. They paid scant attention to his hygiene and denied him much-needed medical care even when he was passing blood in the urine," she said.
Advocate Goel says that one cannot look to the state for everything.
"The law simply forces a child to take care of parents and doesn't help inculcate values. The solution to the issue of abandonment of parents is long-term but also long-lasting -- you can't formalise everything. You need to look for informal solutions," he said.
The act also directs state governments to establish and maintain old age homes at accessible places, beginning with at least one in each district to accommodate a minimum of 150 senior citizens who are indigent.
On this point, Goel said that the act was established without the assessment of the cost that the state would have to bear.
Himanshu Rath, Founder and Chairman at Agewell Foundation, which has set up a network of volunteers to interact with older persons on daily basis, seconds Goel.
In a country with 130 million old people but less than 700 operational old-age homes, he said, the geriatric problems cannot be addressed through this law.
"We can't have a superficial law to deal with this problem. In India, where a large number of people are unemployed, how do you expect them to have resources to take care of their parents?" he asked, the solution is in the hands of the government and the society.
"With a majority population of Hindus, who feel that they get salvation after their sons perform the last rites, they don't go against them to file complaints. Those who have their daughters married off won't agree to be a liability in her marital home," he said.
The result is that most old parents suffer in silence.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )