Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Justice and Equality for All?

More than 70 years after our Constitution was formally adopted, most senior citizens still struggle for their rights and dignity, writes Sonavi Kher Desai

Seventy years ago, on 26 November 1949, the Constitution of India was formally adopted. It envisages Justice, Liberty, and Equality for all its citizens, of whom a large percentage today (8.6%) is senior citizens. The Justice sought to be secured is social, economic and political, and the Equality contemplated relates to status and opportunity.

In pursuance of this goal, the Constitution incorporates Directive Principles of State Policy. Unlike Fundamental Rights, these Directive Principles cannot be enforced by law but they form the basis on which legislation is formulated. So, for example, Article 41 of the Directive Principles of State Policy says that the State shall endeavour to provide the right to education and to work in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement, within the limits of economic capacity. Similarly, Article 46 states that the educational and economic rights of weaker sections of society (which includes senior citizens) must be protected by the State.

Provisions in law

With regard to legislation, a few years after Independence, The Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956, was passed. Under this Act, every Hindu son or daughter is obliged to maintain their aged parent(s). Under Muslim personal law, too, sons and daughters have to maintain their parents, if they have the means to do so. However, Christian and Parsi personal law does not have such provisions.

The Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, provides that a petition can be filed in a criminal court by senior citizens who cannot maintain themselves, to enforce maintenance by their child/children who have sufficient means to do so. This is applicable to all, whether married or unmarried, irrespective of religion.

The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, [sought to be amended by the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens (Amendment) Bill, 2019] was enacted to safeguard rights of senior citizens. Under this Act, senior citizens can enforce maintenance by their children and also seek relief in cases where their rights with regard to property, finance, and personal security are violated. The transfer of a senior citizen’s property, if made illegally, can be made void under this Act. Also, children living with their senior citizen parents and abusing them can be evicted from the home under the Act.

Areas of concern

But how far has legislation, and the Government, been successful in guaranteeing justice and equality as provided by the Constitution to its senior citizens, especially to the poorest among them? A few areas that concern them the most are reviewed below.

Most senior citizens live off their savings post-retirement, and are often not able to maintain themselves. Moreover, second careers are very scarce. There is a need to impart vocational training and to create employment opportunities for seniors.

Pension is not available to all citizens and sometimes the process of disbursement of monetary benefits is delayed or slow. The Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index, 2018, shows that India is the second lowest among 34 countries providing retirement income systems with good benefits.

Good healthcare facilities, especially specialized treatments, are expensive and are not available to all citizens. Specialized geriatric treatment too is not available everywhere. A lot more needs to be done to provide specialized and geriatric treatments in state-run medical facilities.

Property of seniors is often usurped by children or others as can be seen from the number of cases filed in this regard. Most cases under the 2007 Act relate to maintenance and property issues. There is often delay in getting justice due to the sheer number of cases before the Tribunal and the time taken for the process. Moreover, the maximum amount of maintenance that can be awarded is Rs. 10,000, which is meagre. Several changes are required to be brought about to ensure speedy justice and protection of rights of senior citizens.

Old Age Homes run by the State are often sorely lacking when it comes to hygiene, healthcare and nutrition. Many homes do not have properly trained staff or counsellors. And cases of neglect and exploitation of the elderly in many such homes abound. With more numbers of the elderly population requiring State-run homes, it is imperative that the quality of these homes in the above areas is improved and checks are regularly done to ensure that the elderly get the justice and equality they are entitled to.

There is a lack of awareness of legal rights in a large percentage of the population. Education about legal rights, as also legal aid for those who need it, must be made available to all.

And finally, the above is the situation under normal circumstances. During unprecedented times, like the pandemic we are going through, the problems of senior citizens who are alone or economically backward multiply.

Seventy years after our Constitution guaranteed them equality and justice, most senior citizens still struggle.

Sonavi Kher Desai
Sonavi Kher Desai is a Mumbai- based publisher, writer and editor and is the founder- proprietor of Indus Source Books. She is the author of Spiritual Masters: Sai Baba.

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