Old Age: Policy Paradigms

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--By Chittaranjan Pandey 
Old age is a vital event of human life. Even though it comes enriched with loads of hard earned experience and expertise, it is not cherished like childhood. Government policies along with social practices treat old-age people as liabilities and in doing so undermine the potentials they possess to contribute in the progress of their families, organizations and the nation. Reforms at the policy level, in execution of the policies by state agencies, in human resource management policies of organizations and in the attitude of society and family members towards the dignified utilization and management of old-aged population are important for establishing a socially and economically active population equilibrium. Inability to make a paradigm shift in the treatment of old age population can lead to serious population management problems. 
Nepal’s old age population has increased on an average rate of 32 percent during the censuses of 1961-2011 (see table). Starting from a 4.9 percent in 1952/54, this age group nearly doubled and comprised 8.1 percent of the total national population by 2011. During this sixty-year time frame, Nepal definitely has been successful in increasing life expectancy, as reflected by the data. But the question remains: Has the old age population been made active in socio-economic activities or has it been treated just as socio-economic liability? 
Approaches for policy reforms to intervene on prevalent and important national issues, as this one, across the world is made either from the government or from either private sector or civil society organizations. In case of Nepal, the latter ones are not technically and financially well equipped to carry out these initiatives. Many initiatives have been taken by the state, but these initiatives have not sufficiently addressed the concerns in this regard. 
Section 17, Article 35 of Nepal's Interim Constitution states that, “the state shall pursue a policy to make legal provision to provide allowances to the aged, incapacitated women and the unemployed.” This was translated into action by the Eighth Five-Year Plan (1992-1997) through the introduction of allowances (of Rs 100) to old age people who were above 75 years of age.  This was started with an aim to assure social security and help old age people lead a dignified social life. But in a country whose average life expectancy at the time was 55 years, the 75-year threshold to qualify for the allowance and the Rs 100 per month allowance, seriously questions the implication and effectiveness of the initiative’s aim of ‘ensuring a dignified social life.’ Almost ten years later, in 2008, the government revised the age threshold to 70 years and increased the allowance to Rs 500 per month. But still the age threshold remained 5 years more than the life expectancy of an average Nepali (65 years) during that time. 
Despite its inefficacies, the initiative brought some predictability in the uncertain socio-economic conditions of old age people. A government-funded study, conducted by the Geriatric Center Nepal (GCN, 2010), claimed that the old age allowance had brought predictability into the lives of the poor elderly people and their families by offering them a guarantee of a minimum standard of living. Though the amount is very small, value of this social pension is very high among the economically poor elderly people as it at least helps to a certain degree to obtain medicine, food and clothing, the study concluded. 
Besides that, the government has tried at times to introduce special laws and programmes for the old age and dependent-population. The Local Self Governance Act, formulated in 1992, aimed at assuring protection and development of orphan children, helpless women, the old age people and people with disability. After this, in 2006 the government came up with a special Act for these segments of the population. The Social Security and Protection of Senior Citizen Act (2006) had provisions to ensure dignified livelihood for these segments of the population but it has been not able to deliver its promises. Besides these two, the proposed National Framework for Social Protection (2069 – 2079) (NFSP), the Social Security Organization Act and Unemployment Insurance Act, all of which aim at ensuring social security of the population, have failed to show up. 
The problem here, like many other least developed or developing countries, is implementing these commitments. One of major reasons for the relatively less outcome of the government’s programme so far, can be the inability of the government to ensure the participation of the targeted population and geronotological experts in the decision-making and implementation process. 
In present scenario also, the old age allowance starts at 70 years while the average life expectancy is less than 70 years. This is sarcastic. A government employee retires at a maximum age of 63 years but has to wait at least another 7 years for receiving the old age allowance. Though the government might defend the gap stating that it provides pension to its employees, the basis for the 70-year age threshold is questionable considering the fact that it retires its employees at 63. The case is even acute when we consider the fact that most of old age people belong to the informal sector. 
Though the exact size of the informal economy cannot be estimated in the country, it can be said that it is a population with versatile working experience and expertise ranging from woodcarving, agriculture, planning, and research, among others. Present old age allowance only provides them with a minimal fund that itself cannot provide them a dignified life. It needs to be supplemented with other jobs that could pay them. This can be ensured if their participation is made mandatory at the planning and strategy formulation level. Ensuring 60 percent old age (above 60) and 40 percentage youth composition in such level of private and public organizations will ensure transferring of experience to youths and a dignified life to old-age people. 
Forming planning committees with such a composition in all villages will help the old age people earn some respect and maintain their dignity and help youths in gaining confidence for starting up new business ventures and explore opportunities within the country.
Old age comes with experience. Removing it from decision-making level can be costly for the nation, organization and families. They should not be taken as liabilities and challenges. For a sustainable and a secure future, their participation in decision-making and planning process should be ensured. To ensure a dignified life to the old age population, as stated in its policy objectives, the state should bring paradigm shifts in its approaches; make them more realistic so as to secure its objective. 
Pandey is Assistant Manager, Research & Development Department at MEX Nepal Ltd.

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