Law makes it illegal not to care for parents

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 December, 2007, 12:00am

The essence of love is that it cannot be forced. Yet India is trying to turn a moral obligation into a legal necessity, through a law that compels people to look after their elderly parents.

The law, passed last week, prescribes three months in jail for anyone who neglects their parents.

Minister of Social Affairs Meira Kumar said India's family system was crumbling and the elderly were the first casualties.

In the absence of the care and affection old people used to receive, Mrs Kumar said the government had to step in.

Most Indians look after their parents but many are being abandoned, often after being stripped of their property and valuables.

The law is intended to help these parents, if they are prepared to report their children to the police.

At Gharaunda old people's home outside Delhi, a frail, white-haired man is slumped in a plastic chair in a tiny shabby room that has no sign of his earlier life as a businessman and father.

Pratap Aggarwal, 78, has been abandoned by his three sons. 'They brought me here a year ago. They were going to Bangalore for a wedding and said it wasn't safe to leave me at home alone. Now they won't take me home, even though it's my home,' Mr Aggarwal said, lowering his voice so that other residents would not hear.

Mr Aggarwal is one of India's 80 million pensioners, a figure that has doubled over the past 25 years thanks to increased life expectancy.

'People are migrating to the cities from rural areas, leaving the old behind. And in the cities, busy couples living in small flats with young children don't have the space to keep their parents,' said HelpAge chief executive Mathew Cherian.

Special tribunals will be set up all over the country to hear complaints from parents.

The law could force people to pay a monthly allowance to parents over 60 if they are not prepared to keep them in their homes.

Critics say it is absurd to make care enforceable. 'I don't think that the government has any business getting into any family affairs. Litigation will just poison the relationship further,' said Indian Express columnist Gautam Chikermane.

So low are parental expectations that some middle-aged Indians are booking flats or rooms in the increasing number of old people's homes.

'I don't want to be disappointed by my son. I'd rather not test his love. I'm going to move into a home instead and not depend on him or anyone,' said 54-year-old public relations officer Pallavi Tiwari.