In Pictures – how India's elderly suffer in the slums of Delhi

In Pictures – how India's elderly suffer in the slums of Delhi

Wednesday November 22, 2017,

6 min Read

A couple committed suicide in Venkatraopalli in Ramadugu mandal of Karimanagar district of Telangana on 14th November. The couple was engulfed with poverty and ill-health. Vedira Muthaiah, 95 and Latchavva, 90 died in their dilapidated house by consuming poison, The Hindu reported.

Alakhram is 65 years old, and stays on the first floor of a small house in Navjeevan Colony of Kalkaji, New Delhi. He used to work in a factory in Delhi, and when that shut down, he started selling vegetables. He says that back in 1984, he used to rent a bed for rupees five, with an earning of 75 rupees a month. He belongs to Bihar. He has three daughters and a son, and they help him survive.. He spends most of his day inside his room. Both Alakhram and his wife get a pension of 2,000 rupees each under the government’s old age pension scheme. Alakhram’s wife, Phoolmati Devi suffers from persistent heart problems. Pictured above is Alakhram with his grandsons, Ajit and Satyam.

According to the government of India data, 8.6% of India’s population is above 60 years of age. The literacy rate among this 103 million strong group is 43.5%. Additionally, the old age dependency ratio increased has from 10.9% in 1961 to 14.2% in 2011.

I visited two slums, Bhoomiheen Camp and Navjeevan Camp in Delhi’s Kalkaji. The milieu of the area is unsurprising. Delhi’s Agewell Foundation has identified a few elderly individuals living in these two camps and has been assisting them with wheelchairs, adult diapers and rations, depending on their needs. Agewell Foundation is an NGO that was established in 1999 and interacts with 25,000 old people daily, through their network of 7,500 primary and 80,000 secondary volunteers, spread across 640 districts of India.

Pictured above is Ashima Roy, 66. Her husband runs a tea stall three or four times in a week. Ashima suffers from paralysis and is supported by one of her daughters. When I met her, she was lying down on a mattress, watching television. Her wheelchair was kept in a corner, piled with belongings. It did not seem like she used it at all. She has two daughters and had one son who died two months ago since he use to drink excessively. She casually said, “Ladka toh mar gaya - the son is dead.” She is a paralytic since the past three years and complains about lack of sleep.

The founder Himanshu Rath told me that sometimes he receives calls from affluent old people, who use the foundation’s helpline to simply make conversation. On the other hand, there are underprivileged elderly, who find it difficult to make ends meet. Himanshu says that as long as your mind and body are working, one must continue to be financially independent. In India, the retirement age is 60 years. With increasing life expectancy, one has to plan survival for a longer period of time. India’s life expectancy, according to the World Health Organization is 67 years.

Devkali, 80, belongs to Pratapgarh Zila, Uttar Pradesh, and lives in a village between Raebareili and Allahabad. Her family came to India from Lahore after partition. She was married when she was 14 years old, after which settled in Delhi. After her husband’s death, she settled in Bhoomiheen basti. She does not get a pension from the government, and according to her son, they have filled the form several times, but to no avail. Her informs us that she has a bank account, one of the prerequisites to be eligible for pension. Devkali is suffering from paralysis for the past 11-12 years. Doctors have said that there is no cure. She only complains of lack of sleep.

The Bhoomiheen and Navjeevan colony residents are a very small part of a vast pool of the elderly who are illiterate, are illness stricken and have no help, except from their children and sometimes, spouses. The doors of all the houses were unlatched, all the elderly people were briefly excited to talk, some of them asked me to stay for longer while some of them offered tea and water. The common element in all the conversations was hopelessness since illness and perpetual poverty has left little for them to be grateful about. The narrative of these individuals is no different from millions of others that can be found in a country such as India, it is only as unique as one individual is from another.


Leelavati is around 110 years old. She is usually very chatty, according to her daughter-in-lawand has developed some hearing difficulties due to old age. When I saw her, she was lying curled up in many blankets on a charpai under a makeshift roof. Pictured above is Leelavati being comforted by her granddaughter during a bout of shivering. (far right).


Ten minutes into the conversation with Shakuntala, I asked her how she spends her time. She said she keeps sitting – on probing further, she confessed that she smokes beedis to while away time. Since she cannot walk around, she often tells the colony children to get it for her, her daughter-in-law refuses to get them for her.


Pictured above is Shakuntala reacting to her daughter-in-law’s remark on her smoking habits. She had smoked five already.


Vasudev Mandal is 60 years old. He has two kids and worked as a painter before his illness. Two days before I visited, he stopped eating, and got better after a visit to the hospital. He is partially paralysed , which happened one and a half year ago. Sometimes, he starts hitting himself, his daughter told me. They have a BPL card and he receives treatment from Batra hospital. The doctors have said that his paralysis cannot be treated. He has trouble sleeping and when he can’t sleep he says he takes respite in thinking about God. He has a wheelchair provided to him by the Agewell Foundation but seldom uses it. Due to open drains in the colony, it is difficult to take him on the wheelchair, his daughter added. His ancestors belonged to Bangladesh, who came to India after partition. He has completed his education till the eighth standard and has seven siblings. Vasudev remembers the day when his brother was crying because the family couldn’t afford books for him. Vasudev touched alcohol for the first time that day since he thought it would open up his mind. After drinking a quarter from the bottle, he decided to sell his blood for money so that he could buy the books for his brother. Vasudev proudly mentions this. His brother, Bishu Mandal is a civil engineer today. Vasudev’s wife used to work as a nurse at night, taking care of patients at their homes. Lately, because of his health, she had to leave her job. They spend two-three thousand rupees a month on medicines.


Veganram, 60 has two children. He belongs to Bihar and suffers from paralysis. A tobacco wrapper was lying on his bed. A curtain separates Veganram’s world from the rest of Navjeevan Camp.