India, Population, Stories, Women

Data: ‘Elderly Rural Women’ the most vulnerable in terms of Economic & Social status


The data from the Elderly in India – 2021 report indicates the stark difference in economic & social status of elderly women compared to their male counterparts. The urban-rural divide was also visible. Amongst all the sections, ‘Elderly Rural Women’ were the most vulnerable in terms of Economic & Social status.

In the earlier story, we observed that there is an increase in the share of the elderly population in the country, based on the Elderly in India – 2021 report published by the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation (MoSPI). However, the proportion of the elderly population and the growth rate over the years varies widely across the states. 

While the population & age-related statistics provide an understanding of the demographic trends, data related to their economic status, health, etc. can provide a more holistic understanding of the wellbeing of the elderly population in the country. The Elderly in India-2021 report provides information about the Economic Status along with the health & social status of the elderly. In this story, we look at these numbers.

Increasing trend of old-age dependency ratio, especially among elderly females

The Old-age dependency ratio is the number of elderly people above the age of 60 years per 100 persons in the age group of 15-59 years i.e., it is the ratio of elderly people (who are generally economically inactive) compared to the number of people of working age. This is used to measure the pressure on the productive population.

As per the 1961 census, the Old-age dependency ratio was 10.9% in India, which increased to 14.2% by the 2011 census.  It is projected to increase to 15.7% by 2021 and a much higher 20.1% by 2031. This increase is mostly driven by the higher Old-age dependency ratio among females.

Until 1991, both male & female old-age dependency ratios were similar. However, there was a comparatively higher increase in the ratio for females compared to that of the males after 1991.

In 2011, the ratio was 13.5% in males while in the case of females, it is 14.9%. While an increase in this ratio is projected for both males & females between 2021-31, a steeper increase is projected in the case of females with 21.5% by 2031. 

The dependency ratio among the rural population is higher when compared to the urban population. In 2011, the rural old-age dependency ratio was 15.1% while among the urban population it is 12.4%. The report observes that this could be due to the higher concentration of working-age population in the urban areas.

Only about 10% of Rural & 11% of Urban elderly women are financially Independent

As per ‘NSS 75th Round: Social Consumption in India – Health’ conducted during 2017-18, only about 10% of the rural elderly women claimed to be financially independent. There is not much difference in the case of Urban elderly women where it was 11 %.

  • In the earlier surveys conducted in 1995-96 & 2004, it was 12% & 14% respectively in case of rural women. While in the case of Urban women, their share increased during the 2001 survey to 17% but had a steep decline by the 2017-18 survey.
  • However, the proportion of elderly women who are completely dependent fell from 72% to 66% in rural areas, with the shift from 12% to 24% to “Partially dependent”. A similar trend is observed in the case of Urban elderly females as well, where-in there is a shift from “Fully dependent on others” to “partially dependent on others”.

Meanwhile, the situation in the case of elderly men is better off.

  • 48% of the Rural male were financially independent as per the 2017-18 survey, compared to 49 % (1995-96) & 51% (2004). Even in the case of Rural males, there is an observable shift from “Fully dependent on others to “partially dependent”.  During 2004 survey, 32% of rural elderly males were fully dependent on others, which reduced to 27% whereas in the case of “Partially dependent” it increased from 15% to 25%.
  • Comparatively, a greater number of the urban elderly males are financially independent with 57%. There is an increasing trend with around 52% of urban males being independent as per the 1995-96 survey. The proportion of “Fully dependent” urban males have reduced in 2017-18 from the earlier surveys, with a shift towards “Partially Dependent on others.”.

Among the number of dependents on the elderly who are financially independent, there is an increase in ‘One’ dependent during the 2017-18 survey compared to the 2004 survey. This corroborates with one of the findings noted in an earlier story where there is an increase in the number of couples who are living alone, with a presumption that the one dependent of the elderly independent person, being the spouse. The data also indicates that a large majority of elderly who are employees are between the ages 60-64 years with the proportion of those employed in the 65 + age category being lower. 

Greater gender disparity in terms of literacy with only 28% of elderly women being literate

Overall, there is an increase in the proportion of elderly who are literate. As per the 1991 census, the literates among the elderly accounted for 27% which increased to 44% by the 2011 census. However, as per the NSS 2017-18, it is estimated to be around 41.9%. There is an increase in both male & female populations who are literate.

  • As per the 1991 census, around 41% of elderly males were literate which increased to around 59% by the time of the 2011 survey. As per the NSS 2017-18, it is 55.5%.
  • In the case of elderly women, there is a substantial increase in the share of literate women. It increased to 28% in the 2011 census compared to only 13% in the 1999 census. However, this is significantly lower than the proportion of elderly males who are literate.

The disparity is quite stark between Urban & rural. 

  • 66% of Urban elderly are literate while in the case of rural, it is 34% as per the 2011 census. As per NSS 2017-18 around 31.6% of the rural elderly population are literate. 
  • Among the rural elderly population, the numbers for female elderly are much lower. Only 18% of the rural elderly females are literates as per the 2011 census, while in the case of urban females it is around 53%. 

Kerala & Andhra Pradesh have a higher proportion of the elderly population who responded as ailing 

As per NSS 2017-18, around 27.7% of the elderly population have responded as ailing due to some form of illness during a 15-day period of the survey. There is not much difference between male & female populations with 27.5% & 27.9% respectively. However, as highlighted in the earlier story, large variations exist between the states. 

  • Kerala has the highest proportion of the ailing elderly population at 62.5% followed by Andhra Pradesh which has 55.7% of its elderly population responding as ailing in NSS 2017-18. 
  • West Bengal is another large state which has a higher proportion of its elderly population responding as ailing with some form of illness. 47.9% of the elderly population have responded as ailing. 
  • Meanwhile, Uttar Pradesh has 21.4% of its elderly population responding as ailing. Among the states with large populations, only 9.6% of its elderly population responding as ailing in Bihar, the lowest for any large state. 

Across most of the States, not much difference exists between male & female elderly populations who reported as ailing. But there are certain exceptions. 

  • In the case of Telangana, around 36% of the elderly males have responded as ailing while it is only 18.7% in the case of females. Males responding as ailing is higher than females with a large margin in the states of Goa, Karnataka & Bihar. 
  • In the case of Delhi, around 40% of females have responded as ailing whereas it is 26% in the case of elderly males. 

‘Elderly Rural Women’ the most vulnerable in terms of Economic & Social status 

As the data indicates, huge disparities exist in terms of the Urban-rural divide as well as gender. 

In terms of economic independence, literacy, etc. urban male demographic is better off among the elderly population. This is in line with the trend observed in the general population of the country. 

The urban population seems to have an edge over the rural population in terms of financial independence, old-age dependency, etc. However, when it comes to gender, a rural male is still better off than that of an urban female. This is even though the urban-female elderly population is at par in literacy levels with the rural-male. 

The situation of the rural female is worse off, despite slight improvement over the years. Policies more focused on the upliftment of the rural female are the need of the hour in addition to the blanket welfare policies for all the elderly. The greater amount of old-age pension to elderly widows and elderly single women could be a step in the right direction.

Why are a greater share of elderly in states like Kerala are reported as ‘Ailing’?

In terms of health, the states which have a large share of the elderly population also seem to have a greater proportion of them identifying as ailing. Considering the better health infrastructure & economic condition of a few of these states, this might seem odd and even counterintuitive.  But if one were to look at it closely, this is because of the way the NSS survey is conducted. The NSS survey asks the respondents for any of the 60 ailments listed in the schedule. In the case of a small set of important diseases, a medical diagnosis was made a necessary condition for classifying a reported condition as a case of the disease –diphtheria, whooping cough, TB, HIV/AIDS, cancers, diabetes, glaucoma, and hypertension. In most other cases, the diseases were identified by the respondents themselves. Hence, a higher proportion in states like Kerala could be due to better access to health facilities resulting in better diagnosis in identification and vice-versa in other states like Uttar Pradesh & Bihar. 

The Elderly in India -2021 India provides insights into various other indicators regarding the status & well-being of the elderly in the country, which are not covered in this story. The data in the report provides critical inputs for policymaking and hopefully, the governments would use the information for the same. 

Featured Image: Elderly in India – 2021 report


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HR professional, now focused on contributing towards a positive change in the society. Passionate reader. Loves writing and photography and to narrate stories through words and pictures.

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