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State sponsored old age protection for the poor still remains a mirage, plagued by problems of pitifully small amounts, delivery issues and administrative apathy. ‘Retirement’ is a luxury few among the poor in India can afford. Photo :Rakesh Nair
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Amin Suleman, 63 a taxi driver in Bangalore looks at me in amusement when I ask him if he has any pension plan in place. “Hum sarkari naukri nahi karte, warna budhe hokar taxi kyu chalate,” (I am not a government servant (to get pension). That is why I drive a taxi even at this age), he says. The notion that only government servants get a pension and can afford to retire is not of Suleman’s alone. Take a small walk down your street and you see scores of elderly people toiling way past a decent retirement age. From the vegetable vendor to the construction worker, the unorganized and poor have really nothing to fall back on as they work till their last breath.
Social security elsewhere in the world is a term used interchangeably with retirement benefits for old age. The Indian context of social security is much broader, given the fact that delivery of even basic necessities like food and health is completely inadequate. In such a situation, old age pension and saving for retirement receives least priority in the burdened ladder of social security itself.
Take for instance Muniraju, 70, a night guard at a posh apartment complex in Bangalore. He stays up all night and gets a monthly salary of `3000. He has a family of three to support including a mentally challenged daughter. His elder son works at a shop in Domlur and the younger one is also a watchman. Neither do his sons stay with him, nor do they earn enough to spare some for Muniraju.
His wife, Saraswati, 64, works as a housemaid and earns around `4500 per month. But with age not on her side, she finds it difficult to work in more houses. “I spend almost `1000 per month on medicines. My wife and I are old and have health issues. I also need medicines for my daughter who cannot move from her bed,” explains Muniraju.
An independent existence for life
These are not one-off cases. Dipstick surveys reveal that no pension is the norm among the urban poor. Does that mean there is no State support for old age? Not really. Take the case of Karnataka. According to Manasa Devi, Officer Manager of the Directorate of Social Security and Pensions, the Govt. implements two old age pension schemes:
The Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension (the NOAP from 1995), a centrally sponsored age old scheme, implemented since 1964. The scheme provides pensions only to those belonging to BPL households and earning less than ` 6,000 per annum[A1] .
Sandhya Suraksha Yojane is another old age pension programme in Karnataka, implemented since 2007. While the benefit amount and age criterion are the same as the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension, the difference lies in income eligibility. SSY can be given to households earning up to Rs. 20,000 per annum. The number of beneficiaries was around 28,000 in the state in 2009 (latest data available).
The Destitute Widow Pensions (DWP) to assist destitute widows in the age group of above 18 years has been around since 1984. To avail of the 400 per month honorarium, a widow should belong to a BPL household, husband should be legally dead and income should not exceed `6,000 per annum. The pension continues until she remarries or her children starts supporting her or her income crosses `6000 per year or she dies. It is evident that there are many takers for this, as the total number of widow pensioners was 771,165 even in 2007-08.
Does life get better with pension?
85-year old Sharadamma enrolled for widow pension when her husband died in 2000. Living alone in a hut in a village outside Bangalore with a daughter deserted due to dowry shortage, Sharadamma says that the measly 400 goes nowhere.
The World Bank report I carry in my hand reads: ‘Social pension schemes in Karnataka appear to be a model for other safety net programmes, with remarkably low leakages of public funds and pro-poor targeting of benefits’, and it seems to be talking about an entirely different universe. She offers me black tea, makes herself a cup and we sit sipping piping hot tea while staring at a very empty kitchen.
Why has the monthly pension amount stayed the same the last 40 years when the cost of living has increased many times over? Manasa Devi explains that steps are being taken towards increasing the pension amount. For those with more than 75% disability, it will soon be `1000. However, she has no explanation for why the pension for all the others has not increased. At the same time, Dr Amod Kumar from Delhi University who has worked extensively with the old and the homeless, states that it is a failure of every government. The problem according to him is not just with the amount but also that it rarely reaches the right people.
The `400 that doesn’t reach
The Social Welfare Department in Karnataka states that over 90% of pensions have been delivered to those eligible through the postal department.
Over time, however, the quality of service has degraded quite significantly. An important part of the problem is delay in disbursal. At a national level, the Planning Commission found that 40% of beneficiaries did not get their pensions on a regular basis; 18.83% of them reported that their pension payments had been delayed by over 2 months.
A report by the Institute for Social and Economic Change titled ‘Delivery of Social Security and Pension Benefits in Karnataka’ talks about unauthorized payment to agents delivering pensions. This is mostly paid by the revenue department to the agents. The Planning Commission reports that this ranges from `20 to `40.
The third challenge is that a significant proportion of those receiving pension are ineligible. The lack of a system to weed out such spurious enrolment is missing today. The report also mentions that the current delivery mechanisms cause delays in the disbursal of the benefits, appropriation of benefits by the middlemen, delivery to benefits to ineligible persons, etc. In addition, the Revenue Department is also incurring considerable expenditure in the form of commission to the postal department.
The time taken for the release of pension from the treasury to the beneficiary ranges between 30 days to two months. This has been on account of shortage of human resources in the treasury office, limited infrastructure (for instance, one printer is shared by several departments in the smaller districts like Gulbarga and consequently, the printing of money orders is delayed), power cuts, etc. Computerisation of addresses has reduced the time taken to print money orders. Even then, the delays have been noticed. Procedural problems such as a postman can carry only Rs. 10,000 in a day due to security reasons have also contributed to the delay.
Because of the above problems, the treasury offices across districts have started to adopt the practice of releasing pension amounts once in two months. Thus, technically speaking, the practice is no longer monthly pensions; it is by and large bi-monthly pensions.
In search of networks to fill
Manasa Devi further clarifies that the Karnataka government has initiated measures towards addressing bottlenecks and movde towards the timely delivery of pensions. One has been to deliver pensions with the help of the existing banking network. The postman can also carry Rs 20,000 in a day now.
The banking network,however, is not as wide as the postal network. Also delivery at the door-step is not possible through this channel.
But in the meantime, people like Manjunatha, 57, a mason at the Metro Construction site on CMH Road in Bangalore, carry on working. Manjunatha wishes he had a pension plan to support his family when he becomes old. “I will soon be 60, but I cannot retire from work, even though I find it difficult to work now. I am not as efficient as I was a decade ago. But I cannot quit. Who will take care of my family? How will I get my daughter married?” he says, trying to hide tears welling up in his eyes.
These are just the glimpses of the bigger picture we have never seen. If this is the situation in the fastest growing city in the country, imagine the plight in smaller towns and cities. Not to mention villages.