New Delhi (WFS) - Perhaps no other country's government believes in the adage - old is gold - as much as India does, and whose government is dominated by septuagenarians. President A P J Abdul Kalam, Prime Minister A B Vajpayee, deputy Prime Minster L K Advani, and a majority of the ministers of the union cabinet fall under the category of senior citizens or persons above the age of 60 years.

In fact, by the end of this decade, the population of older persons in the country will be 100 million - four times more than in 1961. Yet, even after four years of the adoption of the national policy for older persons in 1999, its implementation remains in the infancy stage.

There has been little headway in setting up a separate Bureau of Older Persons or an autonomous National Association of Older Persons as laid down by the policy.
The worst to be affected by this slow progress are women who will soon constitute 51 per cent of the population of older persons thanks to an increase in their life expectancy. Despite accepting in its policy, that steps need to be taken to address the needs of women (within the elderly population) sensitively, and to prevent them from becoming 'victims of triple neglect and discrimination on account of gender, widowhood and age', no special strategies have been formulated yet. "Considering the fact that the policy took 10 years to be drafted, its slow implementation comes as no big surprise," says Dr Kalyan Bagchi, former nutrition advisor to the health ministry and currently president of the Society for Gerontological Research, a Delhi-based NGO working for the elderly. When he worked with the World health Organisation (WHO), Dr Bagchi had written several letters to the government suggesting that a strategy be formulated to deal with the rising population of the aged, before the problem got out of hand.

However, this problem wasn't considered important enough to warrant special attention. Consequently, even though some drafts were made, these never saw the light of day. However, when Maneka Gandhi was Minister, Social Welfare, things did move in connection with this policy. It was during this time that the name of the ministry was changed from the ministry of social welfare to ministry for social justice and empowerment. Although Gandhi pushed parliament to adopt the national policy for older persons in 1999, the issue and the policy lost momentum once she was shuffled out of the cabinet a year later.

Officials of the Social Justice Ministry, the nodal ministry co-ordinating all matters relating to the implementation of the policy, admit that progress has been made in fits and starts. They concede that there was a period of lull after changes were made in the ministry. Although a plan of action for the period 2000-2005 was made, its implementation did not really take off. Officials claim that the main reason for this was that the subject of ageing was a new one. Further, their ministry was essentially dealing with problems of the backward, the scheduled caste and the scheduled tribes. Therefore, the problem of ageing was not taken up as seriously as it should have been.

As a result, there has been little headway in setting up a separate Bureau of Older Persons or an autonomous National Association of Older Persons as laid down by the policy. The ministry has also fallen behind in its mandate to make a detailed review, after every three years, of the progress made in the implementation of the policy.

Although some progress was initiated regarding financial assistance by way of Project OASIS (old age social income security), its report is still awaiting clearance despite being handed over to the ministry in the year 2000. The report recommends action by the government to ensure that every young worker has the means to save during her/his working life that will shield her/him against poverty after retirement. But until the inter-ministerial committee gives the green signal, the project continues to languish.

The story of the concession on air and train fares for senior citizens is also not very encouraging. According to economist and senior citizen L C Jain, ever since the government directed that such concession fares could only be availed if the ticket was bought seven days in advance coupled with a minimum of seven days' stay, it has negated its objective to assist senior citizens. Jain hopes that the national council for older persons set up by the social justice ministry - comprising of representatives of government, NGOs and civil society - will be able to take up the issue.

Agewell, an NGO working for the aged has volunteers in 540 districts of the country reaching out to older persons through their grievance redressal cell.
Meanwhile, all is not lost for senior citizens. The National Institute for Social Defence, an autonomous organisation under the ministry, has begun identifying special needs of the elderly and designing targeted interventions. Launched in the year 2000, Project NICE, an initiative on care for the elderly, provides technical training and teaches care of the elderly through three-month and six-month courses (free of charge). According to Rafiq ur Rehman, project director NICE, the response has been overwhelming. "We have started a one year post graduate diploma course to enhance skills and knowledge in geriatric care. Now, geriatric care can be taken up as a career. The two short-term courses are more for individuals who want to learn how to take care of elderly patients at home or for NGO personnel. Trainers are drawn from various fields to explain various facets of ageing including psychology of the aged, nutrition needs, related illness like dementia and Alzheimer's and legal remedies available," he says.

Project NICE also engenders valuable data on the social and economic status of older persons. In its last survey, it found loneliness, loss of economic independence and declining health as the major problems among senior citizens. Their findings are also borne out by HelpAge India, an NGO working for the elderly. To facilitate better geriatric care, HelpAge is concentrating on age related illness like Alzheimer's (which affects people over the age of 65), in addition to giving greater technical and financial assistance to smaller NGOs working for the aged, says Dr Shubha Suneja.

Agewell, another NGO working for the aged, manages the social justice ministry's secretariat for the national council for older persons. Named Aadhar, the aim of the secretariat is to provide legal, medical and social assistance to older persons. According to Himanshu Rath, Director Agewell, they already have volunteers in 540 districts of the country, and are reaching out to older persons through their grievance redressal cell.

Despite these initiatives, older persons continue to rank low on the government's priority list. As India celebrates the National Day for Older Persons on October 1, the government may want to remember its own statement that "the policy on older persons will make a change in the lives of senior citizens only if it is implemented", and step up its efforts.