Indian bid to enforce children's obligation to aging parents

Amid changing family values, a proposed law would force children to support their elderly parents.

Tarabai Godbole vividly remembers the proud moment when she gave birth 50 years ago. But now, in her twilight years, Ms. Godbole's pride is sobered by her feelings of rejection from her own child.

Two years ago, at the age of 75 and after the death of her husband, Godbole was left by her daughter in an old age home run by the city's Radha Medical Trust. For the first two months, her daughter visited her regularly and paid for her medical expenses.

But then the visits stopped, and the trust says Godbole's daughter can't be found.

"You become a burden on your kids when you grow old," Godbole says.

As a rapidly urbanizing India sees its social landscape shift away from traditional family bonds, the country's once-revered elders are becoming increasingly marginalized. The swelling ranks of middle-class children are moving out of their parents' homes to live independently or go overseas for better employment opportunities, leaving the elderly at home.

To offer legal recourse to people like Godbole, the Indian government introduced a bill this year that would make it a legal obligation for children, heirs, or relatives to provide financial assistance to senior citizens. Such a law would take India's traditionally strong sense of filial obligation into the stricter territory of legal statute.

"India is losing its family values," says Sumangala Gokhale, president of the International Longevity Center's office in Pune. "Children move out as soon as they become financially independent."

Along with its changing social dynamics, India is also witnessing a demographic shift. While its population remains predominantly young, the office of the Registrar General of India forecasts that people over the age of 60 will make up more than 12 percent of the population by 2026 – up from nearly 7 percent in 2001.

Loneliness a problem for India's seniors

Surveys among India's elderly have found that due to abandonment or gross neglect by children, India's elderly suffer from loneliness and isolation.

According to HelpAge India, a New Delhi-based organization that advocates on behalf of India's elderly, 11 percent of India's elderly live alone or with nonrelatives. By 2025, it is estimated that 25 percent of those over 60 and 40 percent of those over 75 are likely to be living alone. Some 40 percent of older people living with their families reportedly face abuse, but only 1 in 6 cases are actually reported.

For these people, the proposed law offers a chance for dignity and financial stability.

The "Parents and Senior Citizens bill, 2007" states that adult children and grandchildren who earn incomes are required to maintain and take care of their parents or grandparents.

A senior citizen – who could be a biological, adoptive, or stepparent – who is unable to maintain him or herself would have the right to apply to a tribunal for a monthly allowance – up to Rs. 10,000 ($250) – from their child or relative.

Any relative of a senior citizen who is in possession of property or who stands to inherit the property of the concerned senior citizen would be liable to provide maintenance.

The law also states that those who refuse to pay the fees can face up to one month in prison.

"Our message is that older people do not need charity or sympathy," says Anjali Raje, a sociologist from the Pune-based Community Aid and Sponsorship Program, an advocacy group that works primarily on behalf of children."They need respect, companionship, and dignity."

Legal questions remain

But experts warn that several legal holes must be filled in the bill before it is made into a law. In its current form, the bill does not address the needs of senior citizens who do not have children or property.

Another shortcoming, experts and advocates say, is that the law would only provide for senior citizens who are older than 60 years.

"Many women are widowed before their attaining the age of 60 years and their maintenance should be ensured in case of destitution," says Nandita Banerjee, a senior citizens' projects manager at the Dignity Foundation, a social services organization for elderly Indians that is based in Mumbai (Bombay). "And indigent, unemployed men [who are] below the age of 60 years and not eligible for old age pension have the right to be maintained by their adult earning children."

The proposal also does not make it entirely clear how the state will deal with kids who can't afford to pay for their parents. India's Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in New Delhi says its officials are in consultation with various nongovernmental organizations to discuss the legal gaps.

But beyond the purely legal difficulties, many parents say they would be reluctant to use the law to sue their own children.

"No parent would like his child to be penalized for not showing regards to them," says Ananta Khudaskar, whose son walked out with his wife and daughter a year ago, leaving the frail man to survive alone on a small pension. He's bedridden, and there's no one to take care of him.

Mr. Khuduskar's son, Vinayak Khuduskar, says he sends his father Rs. 500 ($12) each month, a fact his father denies.

The younger Mr. Khuduskar, a clerk who earns $400 per month, says the bill is too one-sided in favor of the elderly. "I won't be able to afford paying up $250 on a regular basis if the law is enforced," he says.

But despite their disagreement, the senior Mr. Khuduskar says his differences with his son stem from more than money. "I want my son's love and affection, not his money."

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