Surya Kiran Gurung and Yubarajraj Sangroula, two Nepalese lawyers who have been friends and collaborators for years, plan to propose reforms in Nepal's legal codes to better protect the interests of the country's suddenly growing number of older people.
La nuova idea
Because of the last decade's great improvements in public health care, more and more countries in Asia, Nepal included, are suddenly facing an unprecedented growth in the number and proportion of older people in the population. This demographic shift, interacting with a series of equally profound economic and social changes, has left the legal system increasingly out of date and a source of suffering rather than a safeguard for older people.
Surya and Yubarajraj are conducting a national survey of old people to determine how the country's land tenure and family laws, among others, are functioning in these new circumstances and what the consequences for older people are. It will give them an objective measure both of the economics and other conditions of life facing different groups of older Nepalese and also of legal contributing causes to the deterioration they see in their day-to-day representation of older people.
Armed with the survey's results they plan to design a set of law reforms that will restore some of the quality of life older people have lost by the last decade's legal inadvertence. They especially want to protect older parents from being turned out of their homes by children eager to sell farm land that has appreciated substantially in value. Once they have developed this law reform agenda, they will have the largest part of the task still to go, helping other Nepalese recognize the changes that have occurred and shepherding their proposed reforms through to actual implementation.
Surya and Yubarajraj became increasingly aware of the growing problems older people are facing over the last several years. They began visiting one of the only institutions for older people in the country, a sad place with terrible conditions located in an old temple complex and kept going with support from the state. They began seeking improvements in the institution. Quickly they were drawn into the individual cases as well.
They found injustice as well as sadness: parents sent away by children who had taken over the family property; inmates denied basic rights. They took up these cases. Their doing so attracted other older people facing similar problems, adding to their anecdotal sense that they were confronting a major, unaddressed social problem.
As they explored, the broad frame of the problem came increasingly into focus. The most critical single fact is the emerging demographic explosion of people over age 55, unprecedented in Nepal and, for that matter, in Asia. Who will support them? Can the family, already weakened (or at least rapidly changing), bear the burden? This is increasingly unlikely, since urbanization, increased mobility, higher prices for space, and changing social mores all have eroded the extended family and, even more, the likelihood of its living together.
The problem will be especially difficult for the current generation of older people. They are the least likely age group in the population to be educated and able to adapt easily to new economic and family patterns, let alone to protect their interests legally. They expect to be cared for and respected by their families. If they aren't, as is now probable for a growing number, the results are likely to be tragic.
Surya and Yubarajraj, among the first to focus on the issue, face not only a giant problem but, at least initially, the discouraging difficulty that others aren't yet paying attention. Even the older people, by and large, haven't articulated the problem to themselves, a lack of awareness that means that there is, so far, no effectively mobilized constituency to support their work.
The full implications of so major a series of trends will take years to unfold. However, some of the specific problems are already clear. Surya and Yubaraj, for example, feel that the tradition of adult children partitioning a family farm, especially when combined with the current powerful incentives to sell as land prices spiral upwards, is a two-part formula producing dispossessed, impoverished, disoriented older Nepalese.
Surya and Yubaraj's chief objective is to keep older people out of institutions by giving them greater legal security in their homes and families. As much as possible they want to create incentives that will encourage families to care for and, where necessary, rehabilitate older family members. Thus, for example, they might propose amendments to the law allowing children to partition family lands safeguarding the home and providing a minimum acceptable income for parents who must give up basic control. To the degree that such incentives prove unavailing, they recognize the need for a decent institutional safety net.
Their strategy for advancing these goals begins with their current grassroots work, both at the old- age home and in representing individual cases as lawyers. Useful in itself, this work gives them hands-on experience and understanding that grounds and helps direct their more important reform work.
Second, they plan a careful survey to map the current situation of older people and to help identify the sources of their vulnerability. The survey will also help focus their work and strengthen their arguments.
Finally, once they have a clear set of goals backed by strong evidence they will (a) work to build broad awareness of the issue among the public, and legal awareness of their rights among older people, and (b) press for needed policy and legal changes.
Sangroula was born in 1960 and brought up largely in eastern Nepal. (He still owns several hectares of coconut-and rice-growing land near Jahpa.) Although he originally wanted to be a doctor, he ultimately went to the law campus in Kathmandu. He also studied in India (Patna), where he was a gold medallist student with top grades. He was an assistant to the general director of the Land Reform Department and taught at Pokra Law College for a year and a half before settling in Kathmandu in 1989. His wife is also a lawyer and a co-worker.
Gurung, who is from a military family, was born in Hong Kong and spent a number of childhood years in Dehra Dun (north India). Like Sangroula, he originally wanted to be a doctor but ultimately found his way to law. His close, long-term partnership with Sangroula began when they studied together, both in Kathmandu and Patna. To pay for his studies he started and ran a contracting business, but he closed it upon graduating to pursue broader dreams of service.