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India's elderly face growing neglect

By Tinku Ray
BBC News, Delhi

Elderly women in India
There are more than 70 million pensioners in India

In India's financial capital, Mumbai (Bombay), Laxmibai Laxmidas Paleja lies on a low cot with a thin sheet over her.

She's 92 and very frail and there are obvious bruises on her face. She also has swelling around her eyes, nose and mouth.

"My grandson and my daughter-in-law started abusing me. And they said, 'I'll kill you, I'll kill you'," she says.

"I'm old. I couldn't defend myself. I was bleeding all over. I've got bruises all over my body. Then they just bundled me in a car and dumped me here at my daughter's house."

Grandson Vinay Paleja denies the accusation.

Laxmibai Paleja
Laxmibai Paleja's face is covered in bruises

"No, I never touched my grandmother. She hurt herself and I don't know why she's making these accusations against us."

While recovering at her daughter's house, Laxmibai Paleja says she now has nothing.

She agreed to sell her land and gold to pay for medical treatment for herself and her son. But none of the money was used for the purpose, she says.

The case will probably go to court, but getting to this stage takes a long time in India. Laxmibai Paleja may not even be alive by the time it is resolved.

Rising abuse

There has been a steady rise recently in reports of cases of elderly being abused, harassed and abandoned in India.

Traditionally older people has been revered in India, signified by the touching of their feet by the younger generation.

They have to make up their mind if they want criminal action - but then they will have to forget their family ties
Kewal Singh, Delhi police

Prime ministers and presidents have almost always been senior citizens.

Joint family systems - where three or more generations lived under one roof - were a strong support network for the elderly.

But more children are now leaving their parental homes to set up their own.

Sociologists say the pressures of modern life and the more individualistic aspirations of the young are among reasons why the elderly are being abandoned or, in some cases, abused.

Alarmed by what's happening to some of the elderly, the Indian government recently introduced a new law.

The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Bill provides for up to three months' imprisonment for those who do not take care of their parents.

Court orders will also be used to force children to pay maintenance for their elderly parents.

HelpAge India is the biggest non-governmental organisation in the country which campaigns for the rights of the elderly.

It recently launched a helpline in Delhi which has received hundreds of calls since its inception.

The organisation's own research suggests nearly 40% of senior citizens living with their families are facing emotional or physical abuse.

But only one in six cases comes to light, the study showed.

Kewal Singh, of the senior citizens' cell at Delhi police, says it is not easy for parents to prosecute their children.

"First they have to make up their mind if they want criminal action. But then they will have to forget their family ties," he says.

"But if they want to maintain and retain those family ties, then the situation will be different. There's always a conflict between the law and emotions in these circumstances."

Left to die

The problem is not confined to India's cities.

I travelled to the southern state of Tamil Nadu, to a town called Erode. Last year a 75-year-old grandmother, Chinnamal Palaniappan, was found on a rubbish dump just outside the town.

She had allegedly been dumped there by her grandsons and died a few days later.

Palaniappan's daughter, Tulsi, and her husband live in a one-room house with a thatched roof.

An old age home in India
The government is building more than 600 old people's homes

There are two beds, electricity and a government gifted free colour television. But it is obvious their home is the poorest in the neighbourhood.

"My mother was living comfortably with us for a very long period and all of a sudden on one particular night she went mad and she kept on talking through the night," Tulsi says.

"I got annoyed and told her not to shout or speak further. But she wouldn't stop. Suddenly I found her missing and heard she had walked out of the house.

"We did not do anything, people have cooked up stories. My mother was mentally unbalanced," Tulsi insists.

Law steps in

Poverty and search for work are two main reasons rural elders are being left behind. So many of them have to rely on charities for food and medical help.

There are more than 70 million senior citizens in India and the figure is set to grow to well over a 100 million in the next 25 years.

Consequently, the number of old age homes is growing dramatically.

The government has ordered the construction of more than 600 across the country.

This is the first project of its kind undertaken by the government - a sign that it has already recognised the reality that more elderly people will need assistance in the future.

The government also hopes the new law will act as a deterrent.

But Matthew Cherian, chief executive of HelpAge India, says it is not going to prevent families from breaking up.

"You're not going to get back to the joint family system. We have to get into more and more old age homes.

"At HelpAge India, 30 years ago when we started supporting old age homes, everybody said this was a Western concept. Today everybody accepts this is not a Western concept, this is the reality."

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