Culture of Life
Indians Demand Legal Assisted Suicide
BY Jim Cosgrove
March 28 - April 3, 1999 Issue | Posted 3/28/99 at 1:00 PM
KOLLAM, India—Four old men are demanding assisted suicide be legalized in India, and their lawyer's office is flooded with letters from hundreds of other senior citizens who support them.
There is little expectation the lawsuits will overturn India's ban on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicides, but attorney Vincent Panikulangara says the case underlines the problems of elderly care in India.
Experts say the elderly are increasingly neglected and isolated, particularly in the southern state of Kerala where the right-to-die suits began.
By 2020, India will have 145 million people 60 or older, says the British-based HelpAge International, an aid group that has a wide network in India.
The issue is most acute in Kerala, a state of 30 million people where the success of primary health programs has meant people live far longer compared to elsewhere in India.
Life expectancy for all of India averages 59 years, but in Kerala the average is 70. Almost 7% of India's citizens are elderly — 65 million in a population of nearly 1 billion — while 20% of Kerala's people are elderly.
That is part of the reason Kerala is India's suicide hub: Every hour, on average, one person commits suicide and nine people try to kill themselves, the state government reports say. Nearly 9,000 suicides were recorded in 1997.
“Old people are discarded by their descendants. Their property is grabbed by their relatives. … I see this all around me,” said 69-year-old Mukundan Pillai, a retired teacher who is one of the men who has gone to court seeking to legalize assisted suicide.
Pillai is healthy and mentally alert and his grown sons live close by. He has no immediate plans to die, but he says he must plan for a possible lonely future.
In a country where people rarely talk about death, Pillai shocked his family when he declared he was filing his assisted-suicide petition.
Pillai, who lives in Kollam, a small trading town 1,350 miles south of New Delhi, said the lack of help for the elderly is at the root of his suit. “Either the government should help them live, or it should help them die,” he said.
There are few government programs in India that especially target old people.
The federal minister for social justice, Maneka Gandhi, announced plans in January to develop a national program to provide senior citizens with pensions, health insurance, housing and other help. But it could take years for the idea to be discussed and enacted into law. And many people question whether India can afford such programs.
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