A National Photo Competition on the ‘Working Elderly’ in India, now a week old, over 900 pictures uploaded and over 8,000 votes, revealing the widespread and diverse nature of older people’s work.
It was inspired by our photo exhibition/essay “We too contribute” which told the story of our research into the older urban poor since 2007 and has been well-received in Chennai, London, Dublin and New Delhi. The latter at the request of the Pension Parishad, a network of organisations campaigning for a universal pension in India.
We faced a dilemma. The exhibition proved successful at raising awareness of older people’s work yet we couldn’t cover the scale and scope of their work across a country as big as India. We were in danger of the research’s significance being pigeon-holed in the ‘what-happens-in-big-cities’ box.
The dream was a permanent on-line record of older people’s work from India’s mountains, plains, deserts, coasts, villages, towns and cities – an irrefutable documentation of what older people do, of how they fit into the local and national economy.
This would indeed provide no hiding place for so many stereotypical concepts – ‘old age dependency’, ‘old age burden’, ‘working age’ (as limited 15-59 years) and the insignificance of older people’s work. This evidence would require people to rethink how they discuss and draw up policy on old age, particularly in contexts of deep poverty and increasing economic insecurity. Contexts in which older people must work to contribute to family incomes and, as they often say, to support their grandchildren’s education.
We are very fortunate in that The Hindu newspaper, one of India’s largest English language newspapers, agreed to hold the photo competition with us. And it is becoming a people’s research project!
We now have photos of older people working from all over India, a country with the second largest population of people over 60, in which over 90% of the population receive no pension whatsoever and those who do receive a social pension receive a meagre Rs200 per month (just over £2 at today’s rate), which a very few local governments have topped up to the value of £11 per month. Without a pension, or a viable pension, as well as the pressure on family incomes older people have to work until the end of life (as the competition demonstrates).
However, this isn’t the only story. Our research reveals that people take pride in the contributions they make to their families and especially to their grandchildren’s education. They also like the independence that earning an income can bring – ‘I don’t have to ask anybody for every single rupee I need’.
Yet as the photo competition clearly shows, many people are barely making a living and many are taking on work that appears much too onerous. Three men strapped to each other bent double carrying a loaded oil barrel is especially poignant. Others, by contrast, sit in the shade and cut, sell, make. Some may be able to time their work with cooler periods of the day. Clearly the critical issue here is who is in the driving seat? What would enhance older people’s capacity to determine whether and how much they work and what they do?
The competition reveals how widespread older people’s work is, how important it is both for themselves (and their families) and how necessary it is for the country.
Please participate in the competition by voting, spreading the word and, if you can, entering pictures taken in the last 12 months in India.
Contributed by Dr. Penny Vera-Sanso, Lecturer in Development Studies and Social Anthropology at Birkbeck.