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M.M. Sabharwal is best known for his extraordinary work in the care of the aged. After a distinguished corporate career, he joined HelpAge India, a voluntary charity organization set up by Help the Aged of U.K. in 1980. In his two decade long involvement with these organizations, he has served as Chairman of both HelpAge India and HelpAge International. Currently he is President Emeritus of HelpAge India and continues his active association with the movement of the aged. He was interviewed by Mala K. Shankardass.


You joined HelpAge India, a charity organization at a time when you were a successful corporate sector executive. How did you make the move from a business orientation to voluntarism?

It was not difficult as my heart identified with the cause – to foster welfare especially of the needy aged. My only hesitation was whether I would be able to devote enough time to a cause which requires dedication and commitment. What prompted me to be part of the team to raise funds for programmes to assist the elderly was a belief in the need to raise awareness about the problems of the elderly in the country and start projects which would assist them irrespective of caste or creed. I do not believe in charity, ‘giving fish to eat’; I am for teaching people how to fish. I look upon my involvement with ageing issues as a challenge, setting a new agenda for the welfare of the elderly, particularly those unfortunate poor, disadvantaged and isolated aged, who need help and assistance for integration in society.


It seems that your personal mission merged with that of the organization. How did you plan and work towards the goal of improving the quality of life of older persons?

No programmes can be initiated and objectives achieved without funds. Resource mobilization – raising adequate funds for the ever-increasing number of age care programmes each year is of paramount importance. My connections with the corporate world were of some value and helped in building the image of the organization. We started with the school education-cum-fund-raising programme as our major fund-raising effort. Over time, it has become the mainstay of our resource mobilization activity which includes use of video films, audio-visuals, advertisements, sponsored events, and so on.

The involvement of school children in the cause can be judged from the fact that in 1998-1999 just one school – Holy Angels in Chennai – collected as much as Rs 5.04 lakh. Reaching out to people who believe in ‘live to give’ through students, direct mail appeal, sale of greeting cards, and through approaching corporate houses for donations and sponsorships, we were able to raise Rs 15.90 crore last year.

The funds finance a variety of age-care programmes focusing on enhancing the well-being of elders in society. We work towards ensuring and promoting dignity, empowerment and value of older persons. Over the years we have supported 1,600 projects at the cost of Rs 130 crore, this is of course calculating the costs at current price. We try to be conscious of present day circumstances.


What do you think is our most urgent problem? Has ageing emerged as an issue?

People living to older ages is an achievement. But when people live longer and enjoy no social security – have to live below the poverty line, as widows, lonely and ignored by families, community or society – then ageing becomes a problem. In India, we must realize that ageing of the population is taking place at a rapid pace. Today we have about 77 million elderly in the population, by 2025 they will be a whopping 177 million. The problem arises because 90% of older persons are from the unorganized sector which has no social security system for the old; about 80% live in rural areas with inadequate medical facilities; almost 40% are below the poverty line; 60% of 60 plus women are widows, the most disadvantaged in society; 73% of 60 plus are illiterates – the situation is grim for older persons in our society.

I believe that ageing is one of the most crucial issues vying for attention. If there is no intervention now, the situation will lead to an increase in the numbers of destitute elderly, decrease in per capita income and the quality of life of older persons. The basic problem of older persons in our society is a lack of security at three levels: financial, medical and emotional. We must have programmes to address these issues and plans to overcome these problems.


You have been involved with ageing issues now for twenty years, what concrete steps have been taken to tackle the problem?

HelpAge India’s work encompasses a broad spectrum – from providing care to older persons, communication and advocacy, development of grassroot organizations and assisting the formation of national strategies, policies and legislation on ageing. We have designed and implemented programmes focusing on improved access to health and eye care services, community based services, income generating activities and training. Over the years the organization has conducted lakhs of cataract operations free. We have started and supported numerous income generating programmes which have helped the elderly to be gainfully occupied, improve the families’ economic condition, provide relief from indebtedness, enable elderly to become owners of looms, raise the status of older persons, and so on. Our guiding principle is ‘Earn a living, learn a craft.’

Our day care centres provide the elderly opportunities for companionship, recreation, healthcare and nutrition. We have also recently started income generation activities through these centres. For instance the centre at Yamuna Nagar, Haryana runs a durrie making project for older women. This project provides them with equipment and material. HelpAge India is supporting almost half the old age homes in the country and these now spell security, care and love for old people.

HelpAge India’s Adopt-a-Gran (AAG) programme is widely acclaimed for its concept. It links older people in need with sponsoring families, individuals and corporates. Under this scheme help is provided in the form of food, clothing, medical care, bedding, articles of personal use and pocket money. Last year Rs 8.11 crore was spent on the AAG programme. Besides this, we have started another remarkable programme. HelpAge India has evolved the scheme of micro-credit under which some form of credit or revolving loan is provided to project participants to start income generating activities. Another innovative project is the production of vermi compost through eco-friendly methods in Rajasthan, which is benefiting more than 100 older persons in the lower income group through each installation.


It seems that HelpAge India’s main activities are fund raising and service projects for the elderly. Should not research be important to understand the situation?

At HelpAge India we are interested in studying the problems related to age-care and in evolving more effective techniques of training, research and development of facilities in order to optimize the returns and benefits of the funds spent on our programmes. On 4 October 1990, the President of India inaugurated our training, research and development centre in New Delhi. The centre is engaged in both training of personnel engaged in age-care work, and research and development connected with age-care.

We organize training workshops, seminars and visits to well run age-care institutions. These programmes are aimed at increasing the knowledge and skills of all levels of personnel engaged in voluntary organizations working for age-care. Our development activities focus on creating service facilities for elderly citizens in public institutions as well as in institutions in the government sector.


How is HelpAge India’s liaison with the government?

We work in active association with government departments to further the cause of the elderly. In 1984 we served as the only voluntary organization representing the elderly on the working group appointed by the Planning Commission to prepare recommendations for the seventh five year plan. We are increasingly associated with various committees and groups constituted by the Government of India for the welfare of the elderly persons. We have also received active support from the directorates of education, social welfare and cultural affairs of various state governments and the Union Ministry of Welfare in the implementation of some of our programmes.


The organization runs projects in different parts of the country, what is its organizational structure?

We have distinguished national personalities like The President of India and the former President among our patrons. This imposes a great responsibility on us – while it enhances our image, we have to maintain and improve our credibility. The governing body comprises of eminent persons from different walks of life who oversee the affairs of the set up. The director general looks after the overall planning and implementation of our policies and programmes with the support of functional directorates at the head office. The organization has 24 regional and area offices located throughout the country. Though the functioning of HelpAge remains centralized, since it has expanded its operations to all parts of the country the time has come to initiate a process of decentralization. We plan to have members on the governing body representing the 4 metros of the country and provide greater autonomy to the regions.


Besides motivating people to donate for ageing concerns, has HelpAge been able to change people’s ideas about ageing and related issues?

The wide acceptance of our Legacy Campaign indicates that people are now willing to think differently. In 1995-96 we launched a campaign to persuade people to think about HelpAge India in their wills. An increasing number of donors have shown their commitment to the cause of the aged by making HelpAge India a beneficiary in their will. I have willed my house to the organization and a number of my friends have also followed suit. There is this new phenomenon – promoting cause related marketing – which means that you buy a product and a small percentage goes to a cause. The Standard Chartered Bank has started a credit card scheme which is linked to HelpAge India; the Godrej companies have also come forward to support us in this endeavour.


What is the future of HelpAge India and of the voluntary sector in ageing issues?

HelpAge India has established itself nationally and internationally. We enjoy accreditation with the United Nations, are closely associated with Help the Aged, UK, and are a founder-member of HelpAge International which has a network in 50 countries. My association with both these organizations has helped the cause of the elderly to cross national boundaries. Since our annual income is growing, reaching Rs 20 crore this year, we are able to undertake new projects and expand as well as strengthen the old ones. We are currently helping evolve a plan of action for implementing the national policy on older persons announced by the government in January 1999.

The voluntary sector has a crucial role to play in raising awareness about ageing issues and initiating programmes for the welfare of the aged, particularly since the government has limited resources and requires support in reaching out to the needy section of society to enhance the facilities in existing and new age-care institutions.