Anthi Devi of Chungru Panchayat in Barwadih, Latehar district, Jharkhand, cannot control the tremors in her body. She is evidently suffering from symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but she too is among those protesting in Jharkhand seeking their monthly pension. Her Rs1,000 pension per month stopped five years ago, and she does not know why. https://twitter.com/roadscholarz/status/1355141137284034565

Social security pension, despite the meager amount, are a lifeline for the aged, widowed women and disabled. Thousands of people who were receiving these pensions have complained that the pension amount suddenly stopped being credited to their bank accounts.

The website of the National Social Assistance Programme states that there are over four crore beneficiaries of this programme across the country; over 23 crore transactions were recorded under the NSAP in 2019-20; this fell sharply to about 16 crore transactions in 2020-21.

The Khadya Suraksha Jan Adhikar Manch, the forum for food security, organized a public hearing on February 16, 2021 at West Singhbhum district to take stock of the situation and alert authorities to the crisis that is engulfing the poor and destitute. Academics, lawyers and social activists were among those participating, including economist Jean Dreze, Ganesh Path Pingua (Munda-Manki Sangh), Mili Birua and Asharfi Nand Prasad, Balram, James Herenj and Taramani Sahu.

There are over 71,000 people in the district eligible for pension, according to figures available from the National Social Assistance Programme portal. Census data of 2011 show that over 1.3 lakh people in the district were over 60 years old, widowed or disabled. Approximately 65% of the elderly, 73% of persons with disability and 57% of widows did not receive pension, the press release issued after the public hearing said.

Complaints of not receiving pension were received from 62 gram panchayats in 12 blocks of the district, and these were compiled – the organizers of the public hearing put together a list of 1,364 people who had repeatedly applied for pension but not received it. Besides these pending applicants, there were 648 complaints, many by people who had earlier been receiving pension and could not figure out why the payment of pension abruptly stopped.

Many applicants said they had no evidence to show that they had made the application since the system would not offer them a receipt of their application. Over 800 old age applicants and nearly 500 widows said they could not get receipts; there were also 46 cases of people with disability who had attempted and failed to get the monthly pension.

Each time an application is made, the aged person, widower or disabled person undertakes the trouble of travelling to block office and making photocopies of the necessary documents. Once the application is submitted, there is no way of following up and finding out the status of the application, especially since no receipt is offered.

A press release issued by the organizers of the public hearing on Tuesday said, “Many blocks have cases where the block administrative officers have not accepted the cases due to the completion of the pension quota.”

Budhni Bodhra of Podahat village in Sonua block is 90 years old. She has applied several times for pension, but not received it. Her husband is mentally unstable, and there is no one the couple can rely on. Tulsi Devi, 75, has applied six times. She belongs to Sindrigori village in Hatgamariya block of West Singhbhum district. She too has no clue why her applications have not borne fruit yet.

Many widows complained that it was hard to get a death certificate of the husband, especially if they had lost their husband years ago. They would have to make a trip to the district office, which could prove a costly affair. In at least 225 cases that were brought to the public hearing on Tuesday, the widow’s pension had been denied because the death certificate of the husband could not be produced. Kamla Kui lost her husband 20 years ago, and does not have his death certificate. She was at the public hearing on Tuesday.

The disabled too have to produce a certificate from a doctor citing the extent of the disability – while the state government scheme has a 40% disability criterion as the eligibility requirement for availing pension, the central scheme requires a certificate stating the applicant is 80% disabled. The people making the application do not know precisely how the percentage of disability is arrived at.

All those seeking pension under the disability category need a certificate from the Sadar Hospital in Chaibasa, where this process occurs only once a month. There were at least 45 people at the public hearing on Tuesday who had been trying to get the disability pension, without success.

There were 123 people who said their pension payments had stopped abruptly – some of them were told that they needed to link their bank accounts to Aadhaar number. While a few managed to get that link done and revive pension payments, many had stopped receiving pension. In September 2020, the Andhra Pradesh High Court ruled that it was unreasonable to stop such pension payment.

Mukta Poorti, 73, from Khuntpani block, said she had received pension from 2012 to April 2018. Since then, block officers have told her that her name is not registered on the portal of the National Social Assistance Programme, and so the pension could no longer be paid.

Many old people complained of problems with the generation of their Aadhaar number – the age in the Aadhaar registration process was lower than their actual age, and this made them ineligible for pension, they said. Wrong addresses of misspelt names in the Aadhaar registration process also meant a halt in pension payment. Although the Supreme Court has ruled that lack of Aadhaar must not deprive people of what they are entitled to, and the agency implementing Aadhaar too has repeatedly offered assurances that entitlements will not be affected by the lack of enrolment in the Aadhaar database, the public hearing considered cases of 16 people deprived of pension because of not being enrolled for Aadhaar. Chemo Kachap of Sitahaka village in Chakradharpur block had neither Aadhaar, pension or ration card – he said he survives by begging.

There were also cases where people did not have a bank account, and so could not receive pension. Many accounts had become dormant or were shut. There were some residents of Hatnatodang village in Chakradharpur block whose bank accounts were not within West Singhbhum district – this was offered as the reason they were not being paid pension. Banks have also stopped regularly updating passbooks, and pensioners can no longer figure out easily if pension has been paid into their account.

There are Supreme Court orders directing the government to make pension payment by the seventh of every month; yet, many pensioners found themselves stranded without pension at the height of the lockdown imposed in March 2020, with no other means of income either. Many single women – either never married or no longer living with the husband – said they had no means of a livelihood and did not fall under any category that would allow them to apply for a pension.

To ensure food security for the vulnerable, the coverage of the pension scheme should be expanded to cover all those needing it; the pension amount should be raised to Rs3,000 per month, and indexed to inflation. Pension payment should be regular, and the need for Aadhaar should be removed. Receipts should be offered to all those seeking pension, the Khadya Suraksha Jan Adhikar Manch said.

In late January 2021, at Barwadih of Latehar district, a large number of old age pensioners and widows marched through the streets in protest, seeking timely release of pension. There is reason to examine whether the problem is restricted to Jharkhand or whether such distress is being faced by the old, widows and disabled in other parts of the country too.

Rosamma Thomas is an independent journalist


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