Zubaida Bibi lives on the outskirts of Rawalpindi. Her husband, a daily wager, died a few years ago. Since then, the 62-year-old widow has been living a very difficult life owing to a lack of income.
“I am suffering with diabetes. I need medicines and food but I don’t know what to do.”
Zubaida is one of many elderly citizens deprived of any source of income in the later stage of their lives. A majority of Pakistanis work in the informal sector and when they retire or quit their jobs, they have no pensions or social protection schemes to fall back on. Members of the country’s workforce who are entitled to pensions are less than 8% of the retired workforce.
Pakistan is among 15 countries where the number of people over the age of 60 is over 10 million, according to HelpAge International – an INGO working for rights of the elderly.
There are around 15 million elderly people living in Pakistan, which, according to the INGO, is 7% of the total population. As fertility rates decline and life expectancy increases due to better healthcare, it is expected that the number of older people will be more than 45 million by 2050, according to Waqas Ashfaq Qureshi, programme manager at HelpAge International. “This figure will be around 16% of the total population.”
Punjab — the country’s most populous province with over 110 million inhabitants — hosts over 7 million elderly people but unfortunately there is no specific legislation for protection of their rights. The draft of a law for senior citizens was prepared in 2012 after a number of consultations with civil society and government departments and was supposed to be presented in the provincial assembly but unfortunately that has not happened. The draft bill was a ray of hope for the province’s senior citizens as it contained provisions for free healthcare and financial assistance for the elderly.
Salman Sufi, who headed the Strategic Reforms Unit in the previous government in Punjab, told Sabaat that they worked on the draft and forwarded it to the Social Welfare Department but since the change in government [in 2018] there has been no movement on the subject.
According to the draft Punjab Senior Citizen Welfare and Rehabilitation Bill, an authority for the welfare of senior citizens will be established and further committees will be formed in all 36 districts of the province. After it becomes law, old age homes will also be established in the province to provide immediate shelter and protection to senior citizens, particularly those subjected to violence in their homes. The bill gives parents the right to a monthly allowance via maintenance orders issued by the court if the mother or father is living separately from their children. Other provisions of the draft include reserving of two seats for senior citizens on every bus, 50% discount on services at all government hospitals, as well as at recreational centres, cinemas, theatres, hotels, motels, resorts, restaurants, and lodging establishments. The law also stipulates a five-year jail term and a plausible fine up to Rs500,000 for physical abuse meted out to elderly family members.
The bill was to be executed and implemented via the Social Welfare Department and Baitul Maal.
Civil society workers lament that Punjab was the first province to start work on such a law but the initiative was not followed through. Incidentally, other provinces took the lead and as a result Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed a similar law in 2014, followed by Sindh in 2016 and Balochistan in 2017. This makes Punjab the only province lacking legislation for the rights of older people. Their implementation, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter.
In 2019, the federal cabinet accorded approval to the Islamabad Capital Territory Senior Citizens Bill, but it is yet to be passed by Parliament. However, in November this year, the Law Ministry stated it has the prime minister’s approval for an Ordinance to protect aging parents from being evicted by their children.
An official of the Punjab Social Welfare Department shared that the draft is yet to be brought for legislation and acknowledged that the progress has been slow during the tenure of the present government. He added that the provisions in the law bear a heavy financial cost which will have to be borne with the assistance of various public and private donors.
At present, the department operates only one old home in the provincial capital of Lahore, with a population of around 10 million, which shows the limited opportunities available for the city’s hapless elderly citizens.