Venkatesh Srinivasan, Devender Singh
Every fourth resident from 2061 is expected to be aged 60 plus and we need policy plans in place for this demographic shift.
While India has done fairly well in reducing fertility and mortality over the decades, with our demographic transition at different stages in different states, we are headed for a situation where the 60+ population is steadily increasing across the country. Population trends and forecasts undertaken by the government and several other agencies point out that ageing should be one of the most critical concerns for India. This warrants serious and immediate consideration at the political and policy level due to several factors that we discuss below.
First, though the proportion of older persons in the overall population is low (8.6%), their overall number is very high (104 million), as per the 2011 census. This is projected to more than double by 2036 to 225 million and then reach 425 million by 2061, which would be a fourfold increase in 50 years. We should also keep in mind that this proportion of the total population is different in different states. It is less in north-central states and higher in southern states.
Older persons range from 7.4% in Bihar to 12.6% in Kerala, as per the 2011 census. Similarly, by 2041, their projected population share is going to range from 11.6% in Bihar to 23.9% in Kerala. This underlines the need for a differentiated approach to planning for older persons across states.
Second, ageing in India is happening at a super-quick pace. While the older population took 110 years and 80 years to double its share (from 7% to 14%) in France and Sweden respectively, it is projected to take only 20 years in India to double. The increase of our 60+ population in a 50-year time span, i.e. from 2011 to 2061, is expected to be more than 320 million.
In percentage terms, this amounts to India’s elderly population rising from 8.6% in the 2011 census to 12.5% by 2030, almost 20% by 2050, and a little more than 25% by 2061. Therefore, every fourth person in India in 2061 is expected to be 60+. The question we need to ask is: Are we as a country, families and individuals ready for this fast pace of ageing?
Third, India is ageing before becoming rich. A 2012 study by the United Nations Population Fund shows that poverty rates are higher among older persons, with a large proportion of them being economically fully dependent (52%) and partially dependent (18%) on others for livelihood. A large number of older persons continue to work or are forced to work because of economic conditions.
The proof lies in the fact that 9.3 million individuals aged 61 and older availed work benefits under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme in 2019-20. In 2021, almost 10% of the total workers in MGNREGA were 61 years or older.
We also need to keep in mind that approximately 90% of the workforce in India is in the informal sector, which has poor social protection for older persons, compounded by their relatively low savings.
Fourth, the service coverage of older persons is also low. Social security coverage is only about 20% in the country while health insurance coverage is around 25%. Also, 85% of pension receivers use their pension for food, other subsistence needs and healthcare. Among those over 60 years of age, 10% (about 10 million) suffer from physical immobility and 10% are hospitalized every year.
Among the population over 70 years of age, 50% suffer from one or more chronic conditions. The disability rate was 51.8 per 1,000 for the 60+ and 84.1 per 1,000 for the 80-plus population, as compared to 22.1 per 1,000 of the general population in the 2011 census. Further data put out recently by the Longitudinal Ageing Study in India(LASI), India, also alludes to a similar situation.
Given the fact that we are sure of a huge increase in our elderly population over the coming decades, the level of social security coverage and access to health services for the elderly is fairly low. There are a plethora of schemes for the elderly, but they are tokenistic and lack the depth and financial support needed to make any meaningful impact.
The country unveiled a National Policy for Older persons in 1999, followed by implementation plans of the policy over the years. India can take credit for the fact that it even preceded the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing and in some ways even influenced it.
States such as Kerala, given the large size of its elderly population, have been addressing the issue with initiatives and budgetary allocations right from the panchayat level. In the last two years, the ministry of social justice, for which ageing forms a small part of its mandate, has been active in coming up with some innovative solutions but has been hard pressed for lack of financial support to pursue these and others in the pipeline, at least at the scale these need to be implemented.
Finally, given the scenario of a rapid increase in the size of India’s elderly population (at a higher rate in some states) and the poor financial status of the elderly and the lack of financial support for schemes under implementation, we need high-level political engagement over this issue.
There is much to learn from countries such as Taiwan and China on this front. If ageing issues are not attended to now, with proactive and prospective policies and programmes both at the national and state levels, with the engagement of corporates and civil society, it could lead to a situation like the one we are facing currently with poor skills among the youth that should have been addressed with sincerity decades earlier.
The time to plan for the decades ahead is now. India cannot afford to let elders fade from the country’s collective consciousness.
This article was first published in Mint as India is Greying- What Can We Do About It on July 25, 2022.
Read more by Venkatesh Srinivasan and Devender Singh at IMPRI Insights
Withering away of India’s Demographic Dividend | July 12, 2022
What will PM Narendra Modi’s Legacy Look like? | June 24, 2022
Declining Fertility, Demographic Diversity and Demographic Dividend in India | February 19, 2022
Youtube: Watch Venkatesh Srinivasan and Devender Singh at IMPRI #PanelDiscussion: Getting Old Before Getting Rich: Ageing India
About the Author
Devender Singh, is the Former National Program Officer (Population & Development), UNFPA India (2015- 2021) and a Visiting Senior Fellow at IMPRI.
Dr Venkatesh Srinivasan, Public Health and Development Professional; Previously with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).