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Endless wait for pension for India's 60 million unorganized sector senior citizens

By Bharat Dogra 

The most important support needed by elderly persons is for regular and adequate pensions. Only about 10 per cent of senior citizens in India have access to regular and reasonable pensions. They are mostly those who have served in the civil government, armed forces and related parts of the formal sector. For the remaining over 90 per cent of senior citizens, pensions either do not exist, or else are irregular, uncertain or extremely inadequate.
The pensions for this unorganized sector are provided mainly by the National Social Assistance Program or NSAP (and to a lesser extent by some other programs). Out of the nearly 82 million elderly citizens in this informal sector, this scheme of the Union Government manages to reach just about 22 million people. Many eligible and selected persons have been denied pension due to insistence on Aadhar and biometric recognition, various irregularities and other factors. Thus around 60 million elderly people are still waiting to get any pension. There are separate pension schemes for widows under NSAP.
This scheme of the Union Government distinguishes between two age groups of elderly citizens—60 to 79 years and 80 years onwards. In the second age-group the Union government provides Rs. 500 per month per person. However the overwhelming majority of the elderly people are in the former age-group. For this age group the contribution of the Union government is just Rs. 200 per month.
At a time when highly dubious projects worth tens of thousands of crores have been cleared without much thought and huge income raises are provided to senior officials and politicians as a routine matter, when the number of billionaires in the country is higher than ever before, the pension offered to most elderly citizens who toiled from morning to night as farmers and workers for at least four decades by the union government is just Rs. 200 per month.
This was fixed about a decade back and has not been changed since then despite many demands, protests and recommendations to increase this. During this period the value of this amount in present day prices has dwindled to just about Rs. 85 or so.
To this amount provided by the union government the state government generally adds a contribution of its own under this scheme. In some of the smaller states like Goa, Kerala and Delhi the state governments for a long time have been making a significant contribution so that the selected elderly citizens (not all elderly citizens) in these few states are able to get a higher pension than in most other states, but this is available to only a few compared to the national level numbers.
In several states with much higher population of elderly citizens the contribution of the state government is also very small. For example in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar the pension under this scheme even after adding the state contribution is extremely less.
So on the one hand about 60 million elderly people are not getting any pension and on the other hand most of them who manage to get a pension get a very meager amount. Even these pensions often do not reach them in time and many of these elderly persons have to spend a lot of effort and often some money to obtain their pension.
Their problems increased significantly after the introduction of Aadhar and biometrics based identification. The system of grievance removal which exists today leaves much to be desired and it is difficult for elderly people to get prompt action on their complaints. Pensions of several elderly persons are sometimes stopped arbitrarily and they keep running from pillar to post to renew them.
A justice-based solution, which is workable within existing fiscal constraints, is to provide at least one half of the minimum legal wage to all senior citizens. This should be unconditional for all except those in a very high wealth and income slab, without the recipient contributing to this. Those who are getting higher pensions under various provisions will continue to do so.
In practical terms what this means is that if the legal minimum wage is Rs. 300 per day, then an elderly person will get a pension of Rs. 4500 per month, and a couple will get Rs. 9000.
This objective can be achieved if the Indira Gandhi National Social Assistance Program can get an allocation of around 1.80 per cent of GNP (compared to about 0.03 per cent which it gets today). Considering that allocations for this program have not been raised for a long time, this demand should get priority attention.
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The writer is Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘A Day in 2071’ and ‘India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food'

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