New Delhi: Rs 300. For some, a movie ticket or a cappuccino, for others their weekly grocery budget or maybe a simple family meal in a ‘Dhaba’. And for many thousands across India, their entire pension for the month.
The last increase was in 2012 when pensions under the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme, Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme and Indira Gandhi National Disability Pension Scheme went up from Rs 200 to Rs 300 per month.
Ten years on, the wait for another hike continues.
The government implements its various pension schemes under the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP) for persons belonging to below poverty line (BPL) households.
For the many beneficiaries, any increase, however inadequate in terms of rising prices, is welcome.
Like 65-year-old Hiri Devi, who has been bedridden with paralysis for 10 years and gets Rs 300 every month under the Disability Pension Scheme.
“My husband who is over 70 years old has started working as a daily wage labourer in view of the recent inflation. We don’t even get ration for five days in this money,” Hiri Devi, who lives in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri colony, told PTI.
Till a few months ago, Hiri Devi was getting additional assistance in the form of adult diapers and additional rations from NGOs but this has stopped as the pandemic situation improved.
There is no immediate relief in sight.
There is no proposal related to change in the pension amount provided under the National Social Assistance Programme, the Rural Development ministry, the nodal ministry for the schemes, said in response to a recent RTI query filed by Madhya Pradesh-based activist Chandra Shekhar Gaur.
The stories of distress are many.
Lala Ram, 72, is also paralysed and can’t speak clearly. His daughter-in-law Ganga verbalised the family’s story of distress.
“We have a total family income of Rs 2,000, including the pension. To support a family of six is very difficult. Moreover, the income is not steady…,” Ganga, who lives in Delhi’s Mayur Vihar locality, said.
Some people get pensions from multiple sources.
A 76-year-old woman, who did not want to be identified, said she lost her husband to cancer in 2015 and is dependent on the Rs 300 each she gets from the Indira Gandhi Widow Pension Scheme and the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme.
The woman, who lives in Ranchi with her unemployed son, also gets some money from the Jharkhand government. But the total of Rs 2,500 is grossly insufficient.
“Inflation is so high that it doesn’t cover our food needs for 10 days. I can’t even buy medicines,” she told PTI over the phone.
Though India is not a welfare state in the conventional sense and pensions in themselves can never be enough, the fact that amount in several Central government schemes is in the hundreds and that in state government plans in the few thousands needs to change, said experts.
“States have their own schemes and Delhi and Andhra Pradesh are the highest pension givers … There are states which just contribute what the Centre is giving. The amount must be a minimum of Rs 5,000 per month,” National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) general secretary Muralidharan told PTI.
Nowhere in the country does the financial assistance cross Rs 3,500, even when the Centre and state amounts are combined, he explained.
According to data shared in the RTI, 2.9 crore beneficiaries are covered under all the pension schemes under NSAP.
Anupama Datta, head of Policy Research & Advocacy at HelpAge India, agrees with Muralidharan on the minimum amount of Rs 5,000. In her view, the government needs to set up a basic social pension cover of Rs 5,000 a month for the poor elderly.
About 90 percent of the elderly have to work to survive. Due to the pandemic, the elderly and their families have lost employment and income, mostly from the unorganised sector, which is yet to recover from the pandemic, she said.
“The government should revise the central contribution to states from a meagre Rs.200 (unchanged for 14 years for those below 80 years of age) and Rs. 500 for those above 80 years of age under the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme to at least Rs.1,000 and Rs 1,500 per month,” Datta said.
States separately top up the meagre central allocation. Bihar gives only Rs.400-500 to its elderly (60-80+ years), with universal coverage, which under any parameter is insufficient for survival. Chhattisgarh gives Rs.550-850. A big state like Uttar Pradesh, which has the highest elderly population in India, too, grants Rs.700 (for those above 60) and Rs.1,000 (for those above 80), she said.
The solution, according to Datta, is that the Central government and state governments set up a committee to jointly decide on the pension fund for senior citizens. The Ministry of Rural Development’s own data through the Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011 says that 50 percent of the elderly are poor.
According to Census 2011, India has 104 million older people (60+years), constituting 8.6 percent of the total population).
Himanshu Rath, founder and chairperson of Agewell Foundation, pointed out that the pension is too little and also not regular.
The process of getting a pension is also difficult with many bureaucratic hurdles.
“There is zero responsibility that any government authority is willing to take,” Rath said.
According to government rules, the identification of a beneficiary could be based on an application by the candidate or from the gram panchayat /gram sabha. In all cases, the application form has to be submitted to sub-district level offices — blocks in rural areas and at municipalities in the case of urban centres.
There are various levels of verification before a new case is accepted for pension. Besides, regular periodic verifications are conducted to identify deaths, migrated and transferred cases.
Once an application is verified and the sanctioning authority sanctions it, a sanction order number is allocated. Funds are transferred electronically to respective pensioner bank accounts using NEFT/RTGS and based on Aadhaar.
A national-level survey conducted by Agewell Foundation in July found that four of five senior citizens are suffering due to rising inflation. The survey, covering 10,000 elderly respondents from different socio-economic groups in 24 states/UTs of India, showed that lower middle-income groups are the worst sufferers — 94 percent of elderly respondents from this category claimed that rising inflation has affected them.