Coming of Age

When introducing the speaker, Dr. Poornima Advani said, “He has served in the oil industry, but his heart always lay in the rural areas.” And after finally listening to his heart, Mr. Mathew Cherian now holds the post of Chief Operating Officer of Help Age India, has authored the ground-breaking non-fiction book “A Million Missions,” and has worked in disaster and emergency relief initiatives across South Asia. So to have him address rotarians on the 2nd of October, the International Day of Giving, was quite the coincidence.

He took the opportunity to inform us about the sorry state of the elderly in India, and how, even after twelve years of serving Help Age foundation, there is still a lot he wants to achieve before the Census Board’s predictions come true.

031Here’s a prediction you would not want to believe: Since India produces over three hundred babies every hour, by 2020, India will be the most populated country. At the same time, there has been a drastic increase in the longevity rate. So by 2040, one in every four people will be old, a phenomenon that is called “The Grey Tsunami.”

“I come from Kerala, which has already grown old. There are many older people living in my village, and the children have either gone to the Middle East or other places, and are not there in their homes,” explained Mr. Mathew Cherian. The occurrence of similar cases across the subcontinent has resulted in a large number of old people feeling neglected. And the outcome of this reality, upon taking a closer look, is that twelve billion elderly people are blind because they do not have the means to avail of a cataract surgery that costs only one thousand rupees. And it gets worse.

122“This is a country which does not have social security,” said Mr. Mathew Cherian, who had approached the Government of India with a plea to provide a minimum pension of two thousand rupees per month. If the plea had been met with positive reception, India would have already begun progressing towards the betterment of the nation’s elderly. The government, however, complained of a lack of funds, adding enough satire to their reasoning that it was hard to keep a straight face when retold by the speaker: “The government came up with a figure of three hundred rupees (instead of two thousand), which we rejected because we think it is an insult.”

Another political satire played out between the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and West Bengal. While the UP government says that the mass exodus of widowed women from West Bengal must be curbed, the government in West Bengal is not willing to oblige because the women made the journey “on their own violation.” Fortunately, the Supreme Court mandated Help Age India, under the aegis of Mr. Mathew Cherian, to make amends before the joke turned even more sour.

127The speaker said that since “the life expectancy of women is more than men,” there are ninety million elderly widowed women living alone across the country. A large percentage of this population gather in Vrindavan because they believe that “once you die in Vrindavan, you go straight to heaven.” And why wouldn’t anyone miss heaven on a technicality, especially after living through the hellish experience of being old in India?

In concluding his speech, Mr. Mathew Cherian asked why we’ve forgotten the age old tradition of considering parents as God. In his work for the elderly, he often finds those who have been abused by their own children. All he requests us to do, as we wait for him to win Government of India in favour of a pension scheme for the retired, is to call our parents, and “give them some love because that is all they really need.”