Symposium on Income Security for Older Persons in South Asia

27 Feb 2017
New Delhi, India

ESCAP-SDD co-organized a Symposium on Old-Age Income Security and Universal Basic Income in South Asia in New Delhi on 27 February 2017.

The objectives of the symposium were to: (i) Promote dialogue among key stakeholders in India on options for increasing coverage of pensions in the region and ensuring sustainability of existing pensions systems based upon an ESCAP-commissioned study on income security for older persons in India; (ii) Develop policy recommendations relevant for the context of India to improve the system of providing old-age income security with regards to coverage, benefit level, sustainability and gender-responsiveness; (iii) Identify lessons from other countries in the subregion that could benefit the further evolution and reform of the pension system.

Providing pension coverage for future older generations of older persons will be a future challenge. According to ILO estimates, only 12.4 per cent of people of working age – and only 4.6 per cent of women of working age - are under legal coverage of a pension scheme, whether contributory or non-contributory, mandatory or voluntary. Older women in India are at higher risk of falling into poverty due to their lower labour force participation and thus low coverage by pension schemes. The challenge remains to provide a sustainable and gender-responsive system of old-age income security for a rapidly ageing population.

Attended by Government officials, researchers and development practitioners, the Symposium discussed adequate ways to provide income security and social protection to older persons. Participants agreed that coverage with contributory pension systems was very low in all countries in South Asia. Prevailing pension systems perpetuated existing inequalities, benefiting those who are already better off though in working-age, while those in the informal sector and particularly the extreme poor were left out. Many older people, particularly older women, were forced to continue to work out of necessity. Participants also agreed that family support was eroding in all countries in South Asia as a result of changing values, changing support ratios, as well as internal and international migration. Universal social pensions were considered as a policy option to address widespread poverty of older persons, particularly for those who do not have access to a contributory pension system. Participants also had a lively debate on the proposal of a universal basic income, which was currently being discussed in India. It was suggested that by removing some existing subsidies and some cash transfer programmes, which are often costly to administer, a universal basic income could be funded.

Participants also shared some experiences from pilot projects on a universal basic income, where labour supply did not decrease and school attendance of children increased. Some participants raised the concern that with a universal basic income, social services by the State would deteriorate even more, as funding would be shifted to the universal basic income. In agreement that a universal basic income would be difficult to communicated to the wider public, it was suggested to start with a basic income for a target group which is easy to target and identify, such as a universal basic income for older persons.