From Jan Dhan to Jan Suraksha - Conference on Old Age Security in India

On Monday, 19 October, HelpAge India and GIZ jointly hosted a conference entitled 'From Jan Dhan to Jan Suraksha - Conference on Old Age Security in India’. Participants at the conference discussed challenges in India related to demographic change and social security for its ageing population. Prominent speakers at the conference included BJP national spokersperson G V L Narasimha Rao, former member of Planning Commission Arun Maira, representatives from German ministries of Economic Cooperation and Labour & Social Affairs, social security experts from other countries, and senior bureaucrats and academics from India.

Social protection for the elderly is a focus areas within the Prime Minister’s ‘Jan Suraksha’ or social security policy, announced in May 2015. Providing social security for the growing numbers of elderly in India is, however, a challenge that we are still grappling with. The objective of the one-day conference was to examine these challenges and look at approaches to deal with them.

Focus areas were the demographics of the elderly in India, discussion on livelihood support for the elderly, different models of old age protection and the challenges in implementation. A unique pilot project based on Elderly Self-Help Groups successfully implemented in 64 villages of three districts of north Bihar was one of the highlights of the conference. The project, implemented by HelpAge and supported by GIZ, has overcome caste, class and religious divisions within rural communities to provide group members income security, better social status as collective pressure groups and community support for the destitute amongst them.

In the special address at the beginning of the conference, Mr. Wolfgang Koester, Deputy Head, Department of Economic Cooperation at the German Embassy, spoke of the support provided in different countries by German development cooperation to develop sustainable approaches for averting poverty in old age. Germany is the first country in the world to have introduced a social pension system over 120 years back. In the inaugural address, former member of Planning Commission, Mr. Arun Maira said rather than restricting ourselves to scientific planning, we should work with the natural order to create a vision of caring communities that can support the elderly.

Professor Moneer Alam of the Institute of Economic Growth outlined the demographic changes that are taking place in India – with the age profile in some states even matching the developed economies of Europe. He stated that the window of opportunity for India was very small and this is the time to arrive at a consensus on social protection for the elderly.

With low coverage of state pensions, the old have to continue working till they die. In a technical session on livelihood support, the audience heard voices of the elderly on why they were compelled to work. The discussion also looked at the recent focus of India’s National Rural Livelihoods Mission, which has adopted the Elderly Self-Help Groups model and is extending its implementation in the five states of Jharkhand, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and West Bengal.

The session on models of old age protection discussed the concept and feasibility of universal pension, the limitations of contributory pension schemes in a largely informal economy like India and Germany’s experience in pensions. A concluding session looked at the challenges in implementing old age protection systems in India. Trends from studies show very low coverage of social pensions, despite easing of requirements for enrolment. However, leakages in social pensions were comparatively lower than in other cash transfer programmes. Experiences from the SEWA bank for women workers in the unorganised sector, and from Thailand, which has implemented a universal pension system, were shared with the participants.

For the valedictory address, spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Mr. G V L Narasimha Rao referred to the measures towards social inclusion and social protection that the government has initiated. He said that the priority of the government is to move towards a pension society, though universal pension is an ideal goal which will require more time. Mr. Arun Kumar, Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment spoke on possible measures to deal with leakages and exclusion errors that current government schemes are experiencing.