NEW DELHI: Statutory rights of over 10 crore elderly persons in India must be recognised and implemented, the Supreme Court said on Thursday, directing the Centre to obtain information from all states and Union Territories about the number of old age homes in each district.
It also suggested a relook at the pension for the elderly so as to make it is more realistic.
Emphasising the social justice aspect, the apex court said that state is obligated to ensure that right to live with dignity, shelter and health of citizens, including the elderly, are not only protected but also enforced.
A bench of Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta directed the Centre to obtain information from all the states about the medical facilities and geriatric care available to senior citizens in each districts.
It said based on the information gathered by the Centre, a plan of action should be prepared for giving publicity to provisions of the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007 to make the elderly aware about their constitutional and statutory rights.
The court said status reports be filed by the Centre on these issues by January 31.
It said the Centre must exercise its power and issue appropriate directions to the states for effective implementation of the provisions of the 2007 Act and also conduct a review for the purposes of monitoring its progress.
Referring to the ongoing schemes of the government which are meant for elderly, the bench said, "It is high time that the Government of India has a re-look at these schemes and perhaps overhaul them with a view to bring about convergence and avoid multiplicity".
"In particular, the Government of India and the state governments must revisit the grant of pension to the elderly so that it is more realistic. Of course, this would depend upon the availability of finances and the economic capacity of the Government of India and the state governments," the bench said.
It said there is a need to continuously monitor progress in the implementation of rights of the elderly, the only available solution is a "continuing mandamus" (writ issued as a command) to ensure that rights of people are enforced.
The bench referred to the speech delivered by President Ram Nath Kovind on Constitution day on November 26 and said he had "emphasised that social justice remains a touchstone of our nation building". "Social justice in the Preamble of our Constitution has been given pride of place and for good reason since it is perhaps the most important and significant form of justice," it said.
The bench said "fortunately", the Constitution of India is "organic" and the Supreme Court is "forward looking" and this combination has resulted in path-breaking developments in law, particularly in the sphere of social justice.
The bench said this in its judgement delivered on the pleas by former union minister and senior advocate Ashwini Kumar and one Sanjeeb Panigrahi who both have raised the issues concerning the elderly.
The bench noted in its order that the Centre had in 2007 fixed monthly pension of Rs 200 for persons between the age of 60-79 years and Rs 500 for those aged above 80.
It referred to several verdicts of the apex court and said right to live with dignity is a part of the right to life as postulated in Article 21 of the Constitution.
It noted that the Centre had informed the court about National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP), which was introduced in 1995 and deals with pensions for elderly and other issues.
The bench said the Centre, state governments and union territory administrations must work "in tandem" if they want to make the scheme workable and meaningful.
It said about two-decades ago, the court had recognised right to shelter or right to reasonable accommodation as one of the basic needs of any human being but unfortunately, attention was not paid to the needs of elderly who require special care and attention.
"No blanket order can be prayed for by the petitioner or even argued for overlooking the financial capacity of the state," the bench said.
"No doubt, at some stage the petitioner did contend that in matters of fundamental rights, financial issues take a back seat but it must be remembered at the same time that the resources of the country are not unlimited and when it comes to the court directing the state to expend amounts," it said.
It noted that number of elderly has increased from 1.98 crore in 1951 to 7.6 crore in 2001 and 10.38 crore in 2011, and it is projected that the number of senior citizens in India would increase to 14.3 crore in 2021 and 17.3 crore in 2026.
The bench said it is the time to recognise that there was a large number of elderly persons who are rendered 'homeless' due to migration of their families to other parts of country and even outside India.
"In the absence of a suitable number of old age homes, and homes as per their status, they are left to fend for themselves making them vulnerable to mishaps and other unforeseen events," it said.
"Therefore, there cannot be any excuse of lack of finances either by the Government of India or by the state governments in strictly implementing the provisions the MWP (Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens) Act. In short, if not the constitutional then at least the statutory rights of elderly persons must be recognised and implemented," the court said.
It made it clear that the court was not at all critical of the efforts made by the Centre or states on the issue concerning elderly.