Posted by: lidcblog | August 22, 2013

Capturing the hidden contribution of older workers: why a national photo competition?

'Workign Elderly' photo competitionThe Photo Competition on the ‘Working Elderly’ in India has now closed.  In four weeks it became a people’s research project of nearly 3,000 pictures uploaded and over 34,000 votes that revealed the widespread and diverse nature of older people’s work.

The aim of the project was to uncover the range of activities older people do, encourage as many people as possible to see the pictures and to create a permanent online gallery of older people’s work from across India in order to expose a number of myths about old age dependency.

This was achieved through mobilising a wide range of support through old and new media, including the extended support of The Hindu newspaper, one of India’s most widely read English language newspapers, which kept the matter live in its dailies and online with a number of articles and notices between 29th June and 4th August, including an article by Harsh Mander, public intellectual and social activist (see also 8th July, 10th July, 17th July).

A wide social network campaign drew in the Right to Food Campaign and other social activist and NGO networks, including HelpAge International, high profile media people (notably A. R. Rahman) and the professional and personal networks of people involved in the competition from The Hindu, Birkbeck, and the Centre for Law, Policy and Human Rights Studies, Chennai.  And the judges, Aruna Roy, one of India’s leading social activists; Rajiv Menon, film maker; and D. Krishnan, The Hindu Picture Editor, all gave the competition a high profile, drawing interest from a wide cross section of society.

There is no knowing how far the networks reached in terms of voters and viewers, but it is certainly clear that the pictures entered came from across all India, including the remotest areas.

In their totality the competition entries now form an irrefutable documentation of what older people do and how they contribute to the local and national economy.

While the working conditions depicted generate a range of emotions, there is no denying that they powerfully call into question a number of demographic categories that misrepresent older people and can only serve to distort research and policy making.  Statistics on the ‘old age dependency ratio’ and ‘working age’ (as 15-59 years), on which economic arguments on ‘the old age burden’ depend, combined with negative stereotypes about older people’s work, are now revealed to have little validity in India and very likely elsewhere.

In fact I couldn’t help smiling when reading Saturdays’s Financial Chronicle where article after article bemoaned how the organised (corporate) retail sector can’t get fresh produce from ‘farm to fork’ and, so unable were they at sourcing produce which consumers are willing to buy, that some are actually sourcing it from street vendors!  Yet street vending is no longer a young person’s trade – it’s dominated by older people.

I love it! … the ‘dependent’, ‘unproductive’ over 60s are ensuring that the 50% working in agriculture are able to feed the 50% who aren’t!

So the question is, why would academics like myself put in the months of work needed for such a project rather than writing an academic article?

There were three reasons:

First, as our findings on older people’s work and their contribution to family and economy countered received wisdom, our research was in danger of being ‘explained’ by Chennai being an economically and socially ‘advanced’ city in the Indian context.  The photo competition revealed that, rather than being anomalous, older people are working across the country and play important roles in the economy and in relieving poverty.

Second, I wanted our research findings to be made accessible to people who don’t read academic journals and I wanted it out as soon as possible.  For this we created a photo exhibition which has been shown in a number of places including at the Pension Parishad’s five-day demonstration for a universal old age pension in Delhi.  While the interest from people with little literacy at the Parishad was especially rewarding we were conscious that their rural livelihoods were not represented.

Third, we wanted to cover the whole gamut of work that older people do and to encourage as many people as possible to discover, through their own selection of photo subjects or through viewing and voting, that older people are working.  And did they!  While we had initially thought that for simplicity’s sake we would avoid the issue of whether unpaid domestic work is work or not – the entrants strongly argued that unpaid domestic work, unpaid childcare and begging is work. Again pushing economic and demographic categories further than many economists and demographers are prepared to!

While this competition has been an enormous success it hasn’t covered everything that older people do.  Many older people work in the dead of night when photo competition entrants are tucked up in bed and many work in institutions, offices and factories where being photographed isn’t a career move the casually employed favour.

Yet, as one competition viewer said to me ‘I never saw older workers anywhere, now I see them everywhere! It’s like scales have fallen from my eyes!’  Every researcher’s dream…

See competition photos

Related post

Penny Conference PhotoContributed by Dr.  Penny Vera-Sanso, Lecturer, Development Studies, Birkbeck





19 December 2013:

The welfare of older people in India is on a knife edge as the Finance Minister decides to impose swinging budget cuts, reversing commitments to millions of socially deprived and marginalised people, including older people.  In March this year, the Government of India accepted that a pension of 0.6 pence (11 US cents) per day is shameful and acknowledged that its targeted pension is too tightly drawn, excluded millions of India’s citizens living in severe poverty.  Cuts announced this month will affect older people directly by backtracking on promises made in March as well as cutting workfare programmes on which millions of pensioned and pension-less older people rely for an income, and will also indirectly affect them as their families become further impoverished.  My own research in urban South India (between  2007-10 and 2012-13) found that in response to the impacts of the global financial crisis impoverished households have cut the quantity and quality of their food (often down to one meal of rice per day) and are thinking of pulling girls out of school.  In these circumstances older people often take the brunt of cutbacks – and willingly put their grandchildren’s welfare before their own.  Proof that even tiny sums make a huge difference comes from the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu which, since 2011, has put additional resources into the national pension scheme to bring the total pension to 33 pence per day (54 US cents) for 3 million older people fortunate enough to live in Tamil Nadu.  In 2012 I found that while, 33 pence didn’t free people of the need to work it did give them some breathing space – the certainty that at least they could buy enough rice for 20 days a month.  The Pension Parishad, a coalition of over a 100 NGOs, politicians and academic and tens of thousands of impoverished older people are calling for people around the world to sign their petition to the Government of India.  Follow their campaign


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