Beyond Laws: Advocating for the Well-being of India’s Elderly

The author, Anandita Srivastava is a Third Year Student of BA.LLB (Hons) at National Law University, Jodhpur.

Our elders have made immense contributions to our society, and it is our responsibility to ensure their well-being and protection. While self-sufficiency and autonomy are commendable qualities in people, elderly people face particular difficulties. These difficulties include, inter alia, a sense of powerlessness, abandonment, and ongoing dread for ones life and safety, which impact their social, mental, and physical domains.

The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act (hereinafter “Act”) was passed in 2007 and amended in 2019. This Act lays a legal obligation on the children or legal heirs to actively ensure and support the parents and senior citizens general “welfare”, including, meeting their basic needs and providing them with dignified dwellings, so they can live “normal lives”.

Legal Foundation

The Act, under Section 2(k), defines “welfare” as provision for food, healthcare, recreation centres and other amenities necessary for the senior citizens, and “maintenance”, under Section 2(b) as the treatment necessary to lead a life of dignity. In case of failure to provide the same by children or the legal heirs, the senior citizen may file a maintenance application under Sections 4 and 5 before the Tribunal. It is paramount that the applications are disposed of promptly, considering the vulnerability of senior citizens.

Constitutional Foundations

In the landmark case of Ashwani Kumar v. Union of India, the court stated that the right to live with dignity is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution. The right to life encompasses several rights, inter alia, the right to live with dignity, the right to shelter, and the right to health. Thereby, the State is obligated to ensure that these fundamental rights are not only protected but also enforced and made available to all citizens.

The tragic instance of Ashish Vinod Dalal & Ors v. Vinod Ramanlal Dalal & Ors, serves as a strong instance to showcase the linkage between the Act and the constitutional safeguard for the senior citizens. In this case, the parents resided with their married son in a flat gifted to them by their daughter. Upon facing harassment from their son and daughter-in-law, compelling them to leave their home, the parents sought maintenance assistance. The son contested the Tribunal’s decision favouring the parents, arguing the property was a gift and not rightfully theirs. But the court disagreed, linking the idea of “normal life” in the Act to the constitutional right of senior citizens to a dignified existence.

Tribunal Authority and Responsibilities

The constitutional safeguard has to be upheld by the Tribunal under the Act. The Tribunal, under Section 8, shall have all the powers of a Civil Court for the purpose of taking evidence on oath, conducting inquiries, and enforcing the attendance of witnesses. Additionally, it must follow the summary procedure as it deems fit. This puts the responsibility to ensure complete and timely justice for the senior citizens.

In Joy v. Tribunal for Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens, the sons contended that they had already paid a sum of fifty thousand rupees and, hence, were not bound to pay any further amount as directed by the Tribunal to maintain their mother. The Tribunal then deputed an officer to inquire about the financial background of the petitioners, and it was reported that the sons are all well offwhereas the mother is at the mercy of her daughter. The court determined that all the children have a duty to provide for their mother and thus directed the sons to pay their mother a monthly allowance so that she could live a normal life.

Ensuring Fairness in Tribunal Proceedings

The case of M. Sujatha v. Tribunal of Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens and Assistant Commissioner held that it is imperative, in a case where the respondent does not appear in response to the notice, the Assistant Commissioner is required to conduct such inquiry as he may deem fit under Section 8(3). The Act thereby places a significant emphasis on the Tribunal’s diligent approach in its proceedings. To secure authentic protection for senior citizens while safeguarding everyone’s interests, it is crucial to uphold the foundational principles of natural justice. This commitment to fairness ensures a balanced and unbiased resolution of disputes concerning the well-being of elderly individuals.

In the case of Priti Dhoundial v. Tribunal, the Tribunalundermined the concepts of natural justice and fair trial by denying the children an opportunity to present their case, given the case was seeking extensive media attention. Without even inquiring whether maintenance of the parents was a ‘pre-condition for the transfer of the gift deed to the children, the Tribunal revoked the deed. The court held that as per Section 5(1) of the Act, the petitioner or the NGO is permitted to file a lawsuit before the Tribunal; however, they cannot do so for publicity reasons or without the agreement of the party they are claiming to protect. Moreover, as per Section 6(6) of the Act, the Tribunal must have first referred the dispute to a conciliation authority, which it failed to do.  Therefore, it only seems that the Tribunal had decided to paint the pictures of the petitioners black, hence, the unjust order was quashed.

The opportunity to be heard must be granted to all parties. However, it is equally vital to ensure that the deliberatedelay caused by the respondent should not have an adverse impact on the senior citizens life or their right to get maintenance. Hence, in the case of Geevarghese v. Tribunalfor Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens, the court ordered the Tribunal to proceed ex-parte, after making such an inquiry, and dispose of the matter if the opposite party has unreasonably failed to appear.

Expanding Interpretation in Safeguarding Senior CitizensRights

According to Section 23(1), if a senior citizen transfers property via gift or other means, the recipient is bound to provide essential needs. Failure to meet this obligation could render the deed void, deeming it coerced or fraudulent.

There was a huge debate in the legal arena regarding the applicability of Section 23(1); precisely whether the requirement of explicitly mentioning the condition of maintenance by the parents was necessary. The legal position was clarified by the Supreme Court in the case of Sudesh Chhikara v. Ramti Devi & Anr., wherein it observed that for a transfer to be declared void at the instance of the senior citizen, twin requirements must be fulfilled: first, the transfer was made subject to the condition that the transferee would provide basic amenities to the transferor; and second, the transferee has thereafter refused to or failed to provide such amenities. Accordingly, the Court stated that the first requirement is sine qua non for the applicability of Section 23(1) of the Act.

In the case of Ashwin Bharat Khater Adult v. Urvashi Bharat Khater, the mother alleged denial of entry to her bungalow and accused her son of coercing her to sign gift deeds while her husband was in intensive care. Subsequently, she endured mistreatment, compelling her to reside in a rented flat after her husband’s demise. The mothers maintenance application was upheld by the Tribunal, which nullified the deeds and gave her access to the bungalow. The sons petition challenging the ruling was rejected by the court, whichmaintained the revocation of the gift deeds and cited thedecision of Sudesh Chhikara v. Ramti Devi (supra), which held that during the transfer of the deed to the children, the express condition of maintenance has to be stated by the parents; however, the same may be raised orally before the Tribunal as well.

Recently, in the case of Mohamed Dayan v. The District Collector and Others, the Madras High Court noted that the phrase “subject to condition” used in Section 23(1) must be interpreted holistically, so as to also mean an ‘implied condition’ of “love and affection” to maintain the senior citizen. Thus, an elderly citizen’s complaint could not be improperly denied under the Act’s provisions simply because there was no ‘explicit condition’ made by the senior citizen.This case further expanded the interpretation to benefit the elderly.

Honouring the Elderly and Law Reformation

Section 24 outlines penalties for exposing and abandoning senior citizens, yet the modest nature of these penalties within the Act may not effectively act as deterrence. The multifaceted challenges faced by senior citizens demand stringent measures to uphold their well-being and rights.Furthermore, when children are legally mandated to care for their parents, harassment can significantly impact the elderly. To ensure ongoing vigilance over their physical, emotional, and psychological welfare, a vital provision is needed that necessitates regular check-ins by state officers or representatives from old age homes.

As we navigate the complexities of senior citizen protection, our responsibility extends beyond legal frameworks. In the fabric of our society, the elderly represent threads woven with wisdom, resilience, and a lifetime of experiences. This Act is not merely a legal document; rather, the anecdotes within legal cases serve as poignant reminders of the challenges faced by senior citizens.

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