On May Day, hundreds of people working on the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme in Jharkhand each donated Rs 5 to the government on May Day to protest the fact that their wages had increased by only that amount. On Thursday, hundreds of pensioners donated Rs 7 – equivalent to a single day's pension – to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“The Modi government must be facing huge shortages,” said 76-year- old Chhagni Devi, who had come to Delhi from Taragarh in Rajasthan's Ajmer district to join elderly poor people from several states had gathered to protest the central government's stagnant allocations to social pensions.
The government has failed to revise the figure since 2006, or index it to price rise and inflation. As a result, payments under the official pension scheme have remained a meagre Rs 200 a month for the past ten years.
As Chhagni Devi put her thumb impression on a letter signed by hundreds of pensioners and attached a demand draft to be sent to the prime minister, she explained her problems. With no other source of income, Chhagni Devi said that she and her husband buy medicines and essential supplies from their combined pension.
Activists from Pension Parishad, the coalition of social movements that had organised the protest, pointed out that the Modi government had allotted Rs 12,152 crore to social security this year, which is 0.08% of the gross domestic product. According to an Asian Development Bank study in Asia and the Pacific, even much smaller countries do better than India on the social protection index: Sri Lanka spends 3.2%, Thailand 3.6% and Nepal 2.1% of GDP on social security.
Most of the government's pension expenditure goes to civil servants, who form a very small proportion of the elderly in India.
In principle, the Ministry of Rural Development's National Social Assistance Programme or social pension is meant to cover all eligible people below the poverty line – those older than 60, widows over 40, and those with over 80% disability or multiple disabilities. But the government has capped the number of beneficiaries in each state, which means that in many states even those eligible cannot get pensions. Chhagni Devi said she had she started receiving her pension only three years ago, 16 years after turning 60.
Sixty five-year-old Kushma Devi, who earns Rs 30-Rs 40 per day mending shoes in Bihar's Vaishali district, said she had not been able to get a pension despite several applications to the authorities.
Bitoli Devi, a MNREGA worker from Makrera village in Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh, said she used her Rs 300 pension to buy vegetables, flour, and clothing, but was finding it increasing difficult to support herself as prices kept increasing.
Several beneficiaries reported facing disruptions and harassment for months after their pensions were shifted from post offices to banks under the union government's Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile platform. Mool Singh, a 63-year-old small farmer from Rajasthan said he had not been able to get his pension of Rs 500 (the Rajasthan government add Rs 300 to the allocation of Rs 200 by the centre) since it was moved from the post-offce to a bank.
“I visited the bank four times, but bank officials turn me away saying I have not got pension in my account in six months,” said Singh, pointing to a blank passbook of the Baroda Rajasthan Kshetriya Gramin Bank.
While the Pension Parishad is demanding a universal, non-contributory pension of at least Rs 3,000 a month for workers in the unorganised sector, the Modi government has launched a contributions-based pensions scheme, the Atal Pension Yojana. Under this, beneficiaries will get payouts based on monthly contributions over a minimum of 20 years. For instance, a 40-year-old worker must contribute Rs 291 every month for 20 years to get a pension of Rs 1,000 when she turns 60.
Social activists pointed out that those over 40 years of age cannot join the Atal pension scheme. Besides, it will not be possible for casual labourers who lose or change jobs frequently to maintain steady contributions over a period of 20 to 25 years. As a result, the scheme will exclude a large number of poor in the unorganised sector, they note.