On July 11, Rajsamand district's Kushalpura panchayat held a ratri chaupal. District collector Archana Singh arrived to listen to the grievances of villagers at the late evening meeting at the village square. The majority of villagers there had complaints about irregularities in their social security pensions.
They asked why they had not got their Rs 500-Rs 750 monthly pensions under the National Social Assistance Programme for months. Though meagre, these pensions are the main source of sustenance for the elderly, widows and the disabled, who are the most deprived even in relatively better-off households.
Hazaari Singh, a frail man in his 70s had walked a kilometre with the help of a walking stick to attend the meeting. “Why was my pension stopped last October?” he asked “Whom should I approach to get it back?”
The district collector offered Singh the plate of cashew nuts set on the table in front of her to calm him down. But Singh would have none of it. “Please eat the kaaju-badaam (dried fruits) yourself,” he retorted. “All I ask is, give my pension back.”
Singh had already made several unsuccessful trips to the panchayat head and the block office to enquire about his pension. That night, he returned empty-handed once again to the half-built structure that he lives in on the side of his son's one-room house.
'Power of disruption'
Rajasthan has 68.6 lakh pension beneficiaries who fall in the old age, widows and disabled categories.
In October 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the use of Aadhaar, India's biometric-based identity number for residents, to access public benefits like pensions and provident fund was voluntary, not mandatory.
But the Rajasthan government started the process of seeding or linking the Aadhaar numbers of all pension beneficiaries to bank accounts in March of that year.
In Rajasthan, along with Aadhaar, pensioners details were also to be linked to the Bhamashah database that the Rajasthan government has created building on the Aadhaar infrastructure so that it can transfer benefits to recipients directly and in a transparent manner.
By June, the state government claimed that it had saved Rs 600 crore by stopping pensions for 3.5 lakh beneficiaries and cancelling pensions for 7 lakh beneficiaries. The 7 lakh figure included 2.97 lakh pensioners declared dead and 1.7 lakh duplicates.
Nandan Nilekani, the former chairperson of the Unique Identification Authority of India that administers the Aadhaar project, has described the transition to the biometrics-based system as a “period of disruption” in which it will be “up to individual players to take advantage”.
But in Rajasthan, the disruption comes at a huge cost to the elderly, women and the disabled.
When the Rajasthan government shifted pension payments from local post offices to banks as part of the switch to Aadhaar-based payments, the names of several thousands of pension beneficiaries were simply struck off lists if they had failed to open a bank account or enrol in Aadhaar, or if E- Mitras, the local e-governance service providers, linking the details of beneficiaries with their Aadhaar numbers online made errors while doing so.
Thus, across the state, beneficiaries who are alive have been declared dead in official records.
Dead on paper
In Kushalpura, though not declared dead, Hazaari Singh found out in late July, two weeks after the ratri chaupal, that his pension was being credited into someone else's bank account.
“When I managed to meet the treasurer, he said my pension was being sent into the Bank of Baroda account of a person named Girdhari Lal in another village,” said Singh. “I have a cooperative bank account. I do not even have an account in the Bank of Baroda. I do not understand how could they do this.”
In the same panchayat, of 44 recorded in government lists as dead, 25 were wrongly declared so.
The list of the so-called dead includes Kamla Devi and Hukum Singh, an elderly couple in their 80s, who cannot walk without assistance. “I could not open a bank account, and my fingerprints don't work in Bhamashah,” said Hukum Singh, as Kamla Devi lay on the floor of their hut in darkness recovering from joint pain.
Their pension of Rs 750 per person per month was stopped in February. “When someone said, ‘pensions have come’, I spent Rs 200 to hire a vehicle for my wife and me to go there and register ourselves as living,” said Hukum Singh. “But no official in Bhim or Barar listened to us. We cannot afford to go again and again.”
It was a similar pattern in the state’s Bhilwara district.
In Haldua Ka Bariya in Kidimal panchayat in Mandal block, Shriram Gujjar, a 75-year-old widower, who survives grazing goats, has been recorded as dead as is his 70-year-old sister-in-law, Neni Devi Gujjar, who lives with him.
In this instance though, while they applied for a pension in June 2013, they have not received it even once.
In Khatanon Ka Badiya village in Mandal block, 70-year-old Radha Gujjar's old age pension of Rs 500 was stopped in January. She was declared dead in records on March 3 this year.
But Gujjar is alive, walks with a stick and lives with her son who works as a daily wage labourer. In her mud hut, pans placed all over the floor collect the rain water dripping through the broken roof. “Earlier, every month, the postman would bring the money order and give me Rs 500 pension in cash,” said Gujjar. “That is what I used for expenses. My son does not give me any money. If I say anything to him, he threatens me saying he will go jump in a well.”
Gujjar's neighbour, Pokhar Lal, who is 60 was also recorded as “dead (duplicate)” on March 3. His pension had stopped coming in January even though Lal had enrolled in Aadhaar and opened a bank account. “Did you hear you have died, and that too in duplicate, Pokhar Lal?” the villagers joked.
“I went to Asind to open a bank account, but I did not go even once to the bank after that,” explained Pokhar Lal. “The post office is just 3 km away, but the bank is 20 km away.”
Pensions stopped without verification
In Rajsamand, a district official said that the seeding or linking of Aadhaar numbers with the details of pensioners started in April 2015. For this, a beneficiary needed a Jan Dhan bank account, an Aadhaar number and the state government's Bhamashah number. “In many instances, people did not have all three,” said block development officer Prakash Shirshat. “Even those who did, had errors.”
Shirshat added: “People initially enrolled in Aadhaar without two identity document proofs. Their address, age were wrongly listed. Recently, a private sub-contracting company too made large-scale errors in making new ration cards, introducing more mistakes.”
In Rajsamand's Bhim block, where Kushalpura is, there are 64 panchayat officials and 25,000 beneficiaries. The linking of Aadhaar and pension details was assigned to E-Mitra, local e-governance service providers whose only qualification is to be high school graduates.
“We could not have done the ‘seeding’ ourselves, so we got the E-Mitra to do it,” said Shirshat. “These operators made errors and fed in wrong data, and this was then ‘frozen’ against the beneficiaries’ names. Since everything was being done in English, it was harder to keep a check on spelling errors as well.”
Even though pensions through Aadhaar-based payments would have gone through after the seeding process was complete, the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment did not wait for this linking to complete before it switched processes and started releasing social security pensions through banks instead of post offices.
This switch took place in October 2015 after which payments released did not reach lakhs of beneficiaries.
On March 8, six months later, with lakhs in payments lying uncollected, the Finance Department issued instructions to “stop pensions immediately in case of pensioners who had not been located and physically verified.”
In Bhim block, officials canceled pensions for 3,749 persons, recording 1,799 as dead.
Officials now admit that pensioners were wrongly declared as dead or as duplicate entries because door-to-door verification was not done at all.
“Ward members, anganwadi workers, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan workers were instructed to go door to door, but they had no vehicles,” said an official. “Some took a lift from someone, some simply asked the neighbours and did not meet the family or the pensioner directly.”
He added: “Even if these staff could not find the pensioner, they were required to submit why the pension by beneficiaries had not been collected for six to nine months. Most chose one of two options, recording the person as having died, or migrated.”
Only few got arrears
In Bhim, after several protests, 1,308 of 1,799 beneficiaries who were wrongly classified as dead or having migrated, will be recorded as alive and as being in the village again, say officials.
This was done through fresh gram sabhas following a series of protests over denial of pensions by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a grassroots campaign.
“During a dharna over the implementation of various social schemes, we started enquiring why 10 lakh social security pensions were canceled across the state without any explanation,” said Nikhil Dey, an activist with Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. “In June, we obtained village-level details. When we started enquiring in villages where we work in, we found out the majority had been wrongly recorded as dead, duplicate and their pensions stopped.”
In the following weeks, Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar’s team of reporters estimated that more than 1 lakh of Rajasthan’s 2.97 lakh pensioners had been incorrectly declared dead. “Our team went to villages in more than 28 of 33 total districts with lists of the dead,” said Anand Chaudhary, a senior journalist with Dainik Bhaskar in Jaipur. “In village after village, we found that more than half of those declared dead were still living.”
The Rajasthan government has so far paid arrears in only Rajsamand district, to just 33 of more than 29,000 people whose pensions were stopped or canceled.
Block officials say only five months of arrears are being paid even to those whose pensions were stopped nine to 11 months ago as the new pension software does not allow for giving arrears for more than 5 months without the district collector's approval.
Rajsamand district collector Archana Singh said arrears were already being paid through bank accounts and money orders, and there were only a few cases beyond 5 months, which required sanction at collector level.
Ravi Jain, director in the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, said that the government was still verifying claims without which social security pensions could not be restored or arrears paid.
“There were some initial errors in opening bank accounts and seeding,” said Jain. “But these claims are exaggerated, the dead are in fact dead.”
He added: “We are organising Bhamashah enrolment camps in districts, and we should receive verified figures by next week.”
Officials say instances of people not receiving pensions or declared dead are teething errors and will be corrected as the Aadhaar infrastructure is fully rolled out.
Till then, Rajasthan's old and infirm have little choice but to bear the burden of these experiments.