Should India adopt the time bank initiative?

Mohit Nirula, CEO, Columbia Pacific Communities at an event>
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Time Bank is essentially a barter mechanism that allows individuals to “deposit” and “withdraw” personal time depending on their ability and needs.  As a philosophy, this is both simple and noble in its conception and is based on altruistic principles harking back to a simpler time.  


In essence, individuals offer their time (at no charge) to others. This contribution is logged in their account and available to them as a credit to avail in their times of need.


In its purest form, Time Banking values every individual (and their time) equally, makes “giving of personal time” a tradeable commodity, increases mutual respect and thereby builds a self-sustaining community instead of selfish individuals.


One of the more successful attempts at practical implementation of this concept was seen in the Swiss city of St. Gallen (population ~75,000) where healthy and caring volunteers with good communication skills looked after elderly people and were able to “deposit” the time they spent into their personal account of the social security system. 


Over time, as the volunteer himself/herself got old and was in need of assistance, he/she could withdraw the hours that they had in their account and could depend on the social service system to assign them a volunteer.


India too has had well-meaning citizens make an effort in this direction with the first Time Bank of India making its debut in 2019.


A sub-committee within the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has also recommended that India test a pilot project supported by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.


That said, true value of any noble intentions or concept lies in its implementation and success in the real world.  


What is evident from the various experiments around the world is that the truism of “time is money” cannot be ignored.  Hence, volunteers who are happy to contribute time for such an initiative need to come from a background or have a social support structure where they no longer need to use their time to generate money for themselves and their families.


In countries where people are at an age or stage of their lives where they have to strive hard to provide a better standard of living for their families and the best possible education for their children, the ability and desire to “bank” time for a return in kind at some future date while noble in its endeavour and thought, loses to the more immediate concerns of daily life.


In the more developed countries that have a well-developed and robust social security system and where elderly individuals need company and companionship, such an experiment has worked well with young pensioners banking time to help and support older pensioners.


The young pensioners in these countries can depend on the state to support their financial and medical needs and are hence able to contribute their time to the benefit of their elders, secure in the knowledge that they too will be beneficiaries of the time they accumulate in their personal accounts. 


India is adding 4.5 million senior citizens to its population every year.  By 2050, 20% of the country will be above the age of 60.  The rapid nuclearization of families, improved education and job opportunities, longer life expectancy means more and more seniors are living alone as their children pursue their careers across the world.


What India needs is a solution that encourages seniors to live in a community environment where all their needs of daily living are looked after, their immediate and emergent medical needs can be addressed and where social interaction acts as a bulwark against ageing allowing them to remain healthier for longer.


Senior living communities are the best solution to this need.  Where the country and our seniors need support from the government is through policy and legislation whereby such services are available to all who seek it across all price points.


While the middle class can afford these services from their accumulated savings, many elders will depend on their children’s support to get them access to the care and support they need – especially when the children are themselves unable to be personally present to provide this.


In such a case, children must appreciate and fulfil their responsibilities to their parents.  The COVID-19 pandemic laid cruelly bare the dependency senior citizens living on their own have on external resources to assist them with activities of daily living.


The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens (Amendment) Bill, 2019 is a step in ensuring that there is a remedy available to society and elders.  Tabled for approval in this session of Parliament, the Bill introduces several changes to the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007.


The Amendment Bill widens the definition of “children” to include adoptive children and children-in-law as also the legal guardians of minor children.  Similarly, the definition for “parents” now includes parents-in-law and grandparents as well.


The earlier definition of maintenance under the Act included the provision of food, clothing, residence, medical attendance, and treatment. This has been expanded to include the provision of healthcare, safety and security for parents to lead a life of dignity.


Most importantly the amendment will remove the cap of Rs. 10,000 per month as the maintenance charge.  Tribunals will now have the liberty to fix this charge based on the standard of living of the parents and the earnings of the children to ensure that seniors are able to enjoy the dignity they deserve.


One hopes that the legislation and the initial rulings will send an unequivocal message to children that the state will stand by the seniors and ensure that children are fair and considerate in fulfilling their responsibilities.


Time banking on the other hand, has the potential to succeed in environments where individuals have fulfilled their responsibilities to their families and where the urge and urgency to translate personal time into money is no longer a factor.


Senior living communities where all residents realise the value of their time and support to friends and neighbours is an ideal place to use this tool to bind residents in ties of mutual support.