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Senior citizens ignored again

June 08, 2017

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DESPITE being recognised as a dependent group entitled to state support, senior citizens have failed to find favour with the authors of the federal and provincial budgets for the next fiscal year.

We are at the moment concerned with the plight of senior citizens (aged 60 years and above) who constitute 6.5 per cent to 7pc of the county’s population of 199 million. Taking the lower percentage, their number should be around 13m — by no means a tiny or insignificant segment of the population.

Hopes that something is going to be done for senior citizens rose sharply in 2014 when the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh governments evinced interest in their welfare. In that year, the KP government first issued an ordinance and later adopted the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Senior Citizens Act that was enforced with immediate effect. The same year, the Sindh government tabled in the provincial assembly the Sindh Senior Citizens Welfare Bill that was passed in April 2016 and put into effect after the governor’s assent and notification two months later.

The two laws have quite a few things in common. Both define senior citizens as persons aged 60 years and above and envisage their interests to be guarded by special councils headed by the provincial social welfare ministers.

The KP and Sindh laws for senior citizens are hardly being implemented.

The councils will issue cards to senior citizens who apply for them. These will enable them to enjoy whatever facilities are offered to them. Besides, the KP council will “formulate policy proposals on aging”, propose better care for senior citizens at hospitals, and establish homes for old people. The cards issued by the KP council will entitle the holders to free-of-charge entry to public museums, libraries and parks, separate counters at hospitals and concessions in medical charges.

The Sindh council has a far more ambitious plan. Apart from making policy proposals, the council will “establish senior citizens lodging establishment, homes” and provide “free geriatric, medical and health services with free medicines ... and 25pc concession on all private hospitals, medical centres and clinics”. There will be a “50pc concession in fares in road transport and 25pc discount on purchase of goods, drugs, medicines and essential commodities”. A “25pc discount at ... cinemas, theatres ... hotels, motels ... restaurants” will be offered. Moreover, the Sindh government would provide “free services for funeral and burial” etc. All these facilities will be available on azadi cards (probably a translation of the Freedom cards issued by the local government of London to old persons and physically impaired individuals).

A unique feature of the Sindh law is a provision that those who abandon old family members and spouses can be punished with three months’ imprisonment or fine after a summary trial by a judicial magistrate.

However, both these laws remain almost totally unimplemented. Inquiries made recently showed that the KP government did establish the council and hold its first meeting this year. It also estimated the population of senior citizens in the province to be 2.38m (based on the1998 census).The files were put aside for want of funds. In the case of Sindh, the social welfare department did not claim to have taken any steps to implement the Senior Citizens Welfare Act.

The reasons for this dismal state of affairs are not far to seek. Instead of mitigating the hardships of senior citizens with what is doable, both KP and Sindh have been building castles in the air.

Many people in Pakistan are familiar with the facilities the local governments in England provide to senior citizens and older residents by issuing them coach cards, railcards and Freedom cards and making access to medical services easier for them without going through unnecessary legislation and indulging in political/bureaucratic rhetoric.

In the United States and Canada, too, senior citizens can avail themselves of quite a few facilities just by asking for them provided they are not on the list of undesirable residents. The point is that the authorities in Pakistan care so little about the rights and dignity of ordinary citizens that it is nearly impossible for them to accept older citizens’ claim to state support.

However, the idea of extending help to older persons is not unknown to philanthropists who are fortunate enough to exist outside the jungle that the state has become. A few old people’s homes were established in Karachi and Lahore some years ago. What was needed in their case was perhaps guidance by experts and some upgradation of the facilities offered to the residents.

In the formal sector, too, one finds that the Civil Aviation Authority is not unaware of the need to mitigate the hardships faced by old people; they are allowed to queue at the immigration counter reserved for families. What the CAA has not yet been able to do is create separate gates for senior citizens and physically challenged persons for boarding and immigration control, facilities that are available at most modern airports. Similar facilities need to be made available to older citizens at all places they have to visit for business or pleasure or to cast their votes in an election.

It is perhaps necessary to realise that not only is the number of senior citizens going to grow year by year, a greater number of them will need state and community support as a result of greater urbanisation and changes in the lifestyle of well-to-do people. Thus planning for senior citizens’ welfare will have to be done more sensibly than has been the case hitherto.

Further, old people’s homes are the last thing that senior citizens need. More important for them are guarantees of freedom of movement in safety and access to centres of edification of the mind as well as the cultural diversion that our fear-driven and anti-art society is at present unable to offer.

Finally, whatever is done to make old age less of a drudgery must not smack of charity. Senior citizens deserve respect, if nothing else, for having preserved the continuity of life in our lands.

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2017