Poverty in India


Penny Vera-Sanso, Birkbeck College, University of London


  • V Suresh, Centre for Law, Policy and Human Rights Studies, Chennai

  • Marlia Hussein, CLPHRS, Chennai

  • S. Henry, CLPHRS, Chennai

  • Barbara Harriss-White, QEH Oxford

  • Mark Gorman, HelpAge International


Penny Vera-Sanso


In the context of limited welfare provision for the poor in developing countries, rapid rates of population ageing, urbanisation and growth of urban slums presented substantial and challenging policy issues for developing countries.

Yet the impacts on the older urban poor of social and economic transformation under the conditions of neo-liberal globalisation, privatisation and commodification of goods and services were little understood.

Discriminating conceptualisations of need across generations informed public policy and its implementation. They also negatively impacted on older people’s capacity to secure the means to earn a livelihood, to retain control over their assets and incomes, to secure access to family and state resources and to have control over their lives.

Elderly Flower Vendor in Chennai, South India

Aims and objectives

The aim of this project was to examine the forces and processes shaping the capacity of the older urban poor in developing countries to be self-supporting and to access family, market-mediated and state resources to supply subsistence with a view to identifying policy and implementation measures with user groups.

Chennai, a South Indian city of over four million residents that is seen as a neo-liberal success story was chosen as the subject of this study for two reasons.

First, because India has the world’s second largest population of older people in an emerging economy (following China) and, second, because the research team had extensive fieldwork experience in Chennai’s low-income settlements that pre-dates the period when neo-liberal policies shaped development processes there.


Phase one

Critical examination of discourses on the older people and inter-generational relations including legal and policy formulations and frameworks (culled from official and legal sources at international, national and local levels) and from the media in order to

  • benchmark the rights of older citizens and the standards to measure policy and practice

  • identify the alignment between rights, policy and policy implementation

  • identify changes in the national and local legal, social, cultural, political and economic contexts that have impacted on the urban poor

  • hypothesise how these changes could be impinging on the older urban poor

  • identify the potential impacts on older people of proposed urban renewal programmes

Phase two

A randomised 800 household-survey was conducted in five settlements from which a stratified sample of 200 households were be taken for in-depth interviews. Key informant interviews were held with user groups.

The following questions guided collection and analysis of data:

  1. What determines older people’s capacity to secure their livelihoods?

  2. What determines their capacity to control and benefit from their assets and income?

  3. What determines their capacity to access family resources, including family labour?

  4. What determines their capacity to access state resources, including services that have become privatised/commoditised?

  5. To what extent are patterns of access determined by socio-economic location (including gender, caste, religion, housing tenure) and spatial location within the city?

Phase three

Participation in public hearings, workshops and conferences with key informants and user groups, including potential user groups, throughout the research in order to:

  • Mainstream age in social and economic policy through the creation of alliances with individuals, networks, organisations and institutions not currently utilising or sensitive to an ‘age perspective’.

  • Identify the policies and implementation regimes that will improve the welfare and livelihood of the older urban poor locally.

  • Identify aspects of the project’s findings which can be extrapolated for reference and use elsewhere in India, the South Asian region and other emerging economies.

Policy implications

The project worked towards realising the improvement of older people’s quality of life by raising awareness in popular, policy and academic circles of older people’s contributions to the economy and their poverty and it causes. It did so by working with potential user groups and through a wide ranging and innovative consultation and dissemination strategy.

This study’s dissemination strategy was focused at three levels: local, national and international. Dissemination strategies at the local and national levels focused on the general public in India and on policy makers, educators, campaigners and other key opinion makers who had not previously considered ageing a priority issue in anti-poverty measures.

A wide range of dissemination techniques were used, and their results were also reported locally in new and old media in English and Tamil languages. Photo exhibitions raising awareness of older people’s contributions to the economy, public hearings on older people’s access to pensions and food rations, public meetings on old age poverty and discrimination; guest lectures at three universities; presentations in Chennai’s planning consultation workshops, meetings with key policy makers and elected representatives and an extended article in the Hindu Sunday Magazine.

A two-day international conference, held in Chennai (funded by HelpAge India, HelpAge International and the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras) in March 2010, all encouraged national-level social activists to broaden their anti-poverty work to cover the specifics of old age poverty.

At the international level, to raise awareness of and provide evidence on old age poverty in developing countries, the Principal Investigator guest-edited a special volume on ageing in Oxfam’s journal of Gender and Development which is widely read among practitioners, policy makers and academics across the world as well as presenting papers at UK and international conferences.

Project findings and evidence have also been used by HelpAge International in their publication Forgotten Workforce: Older people and their right to decent work (2010) and the working group of the UN Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women who are developing a recommendation on older women.