Life is tough for pensioners and senior citizens in Bangladesh. The woes of pensioners, especially if they do not belong to the privileged classes, know no limits in this country. Against the backdrop of a very tense global economy, affected by the pandemic and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, people are suffering badly. According to the SANEM research, food inflation was more than 11 per cent in January, and people spent more than 60 per cent of their earnings for food items.
The pandemic and food inflation have affected all society segments, and people with limited income have been hit particularly hard. Pensioners, many believe, have been the worst hit by the skyrocketing price hikes of daily essentials.
Pensioners are struggling to buy commodities as the price hikes of essentials have made a big dent in their savings. It has also put a strain on their relationship with their near and dear ones as visiting places involves money.
Many pensioners are suffering from chronic ailments. Treatment costs have spiralled and eaten into their savings. Pensioners are finding it difficult to uphold their social status, relationship with neighbours, and as a consequence of commodity price hikes and local currency devaluation.
Media reports say that the prices of commodities have spiralled out of control. The soybean oil price has crossed the Tk 200 mark. Prices of staple foods -- rice and atta - have also increased. A kilogram of beef is now being sold at Tk 700 while the mutton price is Tk 950 or higher. Pensioners are under tremendous stress due to the permeating inflation, and their pensions have not seen a concurrent rise.
The much-vaunted Universal Pension Scheme (UPS) is indeed a step in the right direction. However, if the process of getting a pension is full of difficulties, the scheme will not yield the expected result.
The old social structures are crumbling, with the senior citizens denied the respect and family safety they once enjoyed. A steady rise in materialistic values has taken away the genuine reverence that our society once had for the elderly. Unfortunately, for all our talks about 'respecting age,' many Bangladeshis today regard wrinkles and grey hair with a sense of horror. When we talk of our demographic advantage, it is always about the youth. When we speak of our demographic challenge, it is inevitably about ageing. Who will bear the cost of longevity? Do we have the institutional structures in place? What is the burden of caring for the elderly?
The youth, in general, are losing the age-old custom of respect and are also becoming less concerned about older persons, even their parents, and close relatives. Prevalence of nuclear families, lack of cross-generation interaction, less social interaction with older persons, age discrimination, and lack of adequate social security system in Bangladesh can be cited as the most important reasons for the miserable condition of many older persons.
The monthly allowance for the country's senior citizens (boyoshko bhata) is the princely sum of Taka 500. The Tk 500 for a person per month is indeed a pittance. In these days of high prices of essential commodities, what can this little amount fetch for a person? Isn't it a mockery? A person needs food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Can the allowance meet even a small fraction of the needs? Then why it is for?" Well, nobody seems to have an answer to these questions. Many senior citizens find it extremely difficult to get hold of even this meagre amount.
To make matters worse, those entitled to this 'boyoshko bhata" have to allegedly grease the palms of the officials concerned. And reports indicate that instead of getting the allowance every month, they get it every three to four months.
The elderly population is a fast-growing segment of Bangladesh society nowadays. Every year, approximately 80,000 new older persons enter the group of the older persons who, in general, constitute a socially and economically vulnerable group with the basic needs remaining unmet in many cases. By 2050, it is estimated that the number of people over 60 will be approximately equal to the number of children under 14. The number of people over 75 is increasing faster than any other group. The Constitution declares in article 15(D) that the government should introduce social security programmes for the insolvent elderly population. However, the only visible support to the older persons is the earlier mentioned 'old age allowance' (Boyosko Bhata) of Taka 500.
In Bangladesh, the elderly have to visit different government offices for various purposes. The norm here is to have senior citizens visit these offices in person regardless of their health or physical condition. No senior citizen counters exist at these offices, or if they do they are non-operational.
Officials should be trained to be patient while dealing with senior citizens. Their attitude shows that either standard operating procedures don't state how to deal with senior citizens or, if they do, they are not taught, followed and monitored in practical life.
Family members who have to shoulder the responsibility of care-giving should educate themselves about an elderly person's specific needs including psycho-sociological, dietary, physical, mental and emotional requirements.
It is a shocking fact that many elderly parents are being abused and abandoned by their children, and it is not just an urban phenomenon. In rural Bangladesh, too, extended family system is eroding. The younger generation is increasingly heading off to cities with their spouses and children to start a new life - without their parents or grandparents.
And then there are the financial issues. Those who have worked in government service or for reputed private companies receive pensions, but a large majority of the population still work as farmers or day labourers. Once they are too old to work, they are forced to rely on their children or extended family for support which is often not forthcoming. It is a fact of life that everyone wants to live long, but no one wants to grow old.
Perceiving old age with fear is actually a rather recent phenomenon. Old age is now viewed as an unavoidable, undesirable, problem-ridden phase of life. A phase that we all are destined to go through-biding time until our life exits from life itself.
The pensioners and senior citizens need practical measures to alleviate their grievances and not mere promises giving false hope.