On Saturday, the Indian Express carried a critique of the UPA government’s Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Bill 2007, which was introduced in the Lok Sabha in March. M. R. Madhavan, who works with the PRS Legislative Research at the Centre for Policy Research focuses on larger policy problems with the Bill, while also zeroing in on specific provisions that arouse his concern:
“The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Bill, 2007, which was introduced in Lok Sabha in March, aims “to provide for more effective provisions for the maintenance and welfare of parents and senior citizens guaranteed and recognised under the Constitution and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” While it is difficult to contest the objective of ensuring a comfortable life for senior citizens, a number of provisions in the Bill may not be easy to implement. The Bill neatly sidesteps the directive in the Constitution (Article 41), which directs the state to provide public assistance in cases of old age. The Bill does state that, “The state government may establish and maintain such number of old age homes at accessible places, as it may deem necessary, in a phased manner, beginning with at least one in each district to accommodate in such homes a minimum of one hundred fifty senior citizens who are indigent”. Note the use of “may” instead of “shall” — there is no obligation on the state governments to establish these. Even without this clause, there was never any prohibition on them from providing old age homes. Also, one wonders why a Bill should specify details such as the minimum size of an old age home. Instead, the Bill places the obligation of maintaining a senior citizen on his or her children, grandchildren or any legal heirs. The process and amount differs from the existing provision in the Code of Criminal Procedure (Section 125), under which a first class magistrate may order a person to provide a monthly maintenance to his parents (or wife, including divorced wife or children), limited to Rs 500. The Bill provides that the children of a senior citizen have the obligation to maintain a senior citizen to the extent that he “may lead a normal life”. In case of a childless senior citizen, the obligation is on a relative who is in possession of the senior citizen’s property or who would inherit his property. The maximum monthly allowance is to be specified by state governments, subject to a limit of Rs 10,000. Some of the definitions in the Bill are confusing. Senior citizens are defined as “any person being a citizen of India, who has attained the age of sixty years or above and includes parent whether or not a senior citizen”. This implies that every parent, including those below sixty years of age, would be considered a “senior citizen”. Relative “means any legal heir of the childless senior citizen who is not a minor and is in possession of or would inherit his property after his death.” How does one determine who would inherit the property? Does this mean that the senior citizen has to reveal the contents of his will, and does not have the freedom to change it later? If he is allowed to change his will, consider the case of the person who is initially named in the will, forced to provide a maintenance, and who finds on the death of the senior citizen that there is another will that disinherits him. So what does a senior citizen do if he wants maintenance? He applies to the ‘Maintenance Tribunal’. The application may also be made by any other person or organisation authorised by him. However, the Bill clarifies that such an “organisation” means “any voluntary organisation registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860, or any other law for the time being in force”. It seems to ignore the fact that the Societies Registration Act does not define “voluntary organisation”. One might be tempted to believe that the purpose of permitting such organisations is to assist a senior citizen. However, the Bill makes it clear that “no party to a proceeding before a tribunal or appellate tribunal shall be represented by a legal practitioner”. That is, one may not use the services of a legally qualified person in obtaining one’s legal entitlements under this law. Regarding the maintenance tribunal, the Bill states that “the state government may… constitute for each sub-division one or more tribunals… The tribunal shall be presided over by an officer not below the rank of sub-divisional officer of a state”. There are two points to note here. First, the use of “may”, leaving the state governments the option of not forming such tribunals. Second, the job is entrusted to the SDO, who has a number of other responsibilities. To conclude, one is not arguing against the idea of providing a safety net for senior citizens. The point is that any law that provides for such a net should be implementable. Other than the various loopholes discussed, the big issue is whether parents would take their children to the tribunal, given various social pressures. A better approach may be to design a social security system, including financial products such as pension schemes and reverse mortgages that enable the elderly to live a dignified life.”
This is a powerful critique of the Bill, which is scheduled to be debated during the current session of Parliament. To my mind, there is only one existing precedent for such a law, which is the Singaporean Maintenance of Parents Act. Significantly, that law is backed by governmental programmes of pension, healthcare and other forms of support for the elderly, which adds weight to Madhavan’s core argument. Hopefully, these issues will be aired during the Parliamentary debates on this law.