Meharunnisa Bee, 32, a resident of Yakutpura in Hyderabad’s Old City called out to god in gratitude when local Urdu channel Munsif TV announced earlier this month that the Telangana government had announced a new scheme to give a monthly pension of Rs 1,000 to poor women like her.

Her husband Syed Ahmed Khan, 37, was employed as a driver in the Saudi Arabia town of Dammam but was imprisoned in 2014 on charges of continuing to work on an expired work permit.

Meharunnissa Bee said that job agents, who took Rs 25,000 from her husband to get an extension on his work permit, convinced him to continue working illegally in the Gulf state. However, he was caught and jailed, leaving her without any source of income back home in Telangana.

Similarly, Ramulamma, a handloom worker in Sircilla town, is also grateful for the scheme. Her heavily indebted husband, Midde Rajanna, committed suicide in 2013 at the height of the agitation for a separate state of Telangana.

“[The] pension will go a long way in meeting our day to day needs,” said Ramulamma.

Pension scheme

On January 6, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, popularly known as KCR, announced in the Assembly the government’s intention to grant a monthly pension of Rs 1,000 to “helpless single women” with effect from April 1.

Single women whose annual income is below Rs 2 lakh are eligible for this pension, which is expected to benefit at least two lakh to three lakh women in the state. These include the widows of farmers and handloom workers who committed suicide, poverty-stricken wives of men who left for the Gulf in search of employment but now languish in jails there due to various reasons, and single women abandoned by their families.

“The scheme will give livelihood options to BPL [Below Poverty Line] families whose bread earners died in road accidents, committed suicide [such as] small farmers and handloom workers, or went overseas for jobs and are in dire straits,” KCR told the Assembly.

He added: “The scheme gives single women basic economic independence to meet the immediate needs of her family – school fees and sustenance.”

The chief minister said that the government was instructing district collectors to start registering details of single women eligible for the pension.

The announcement gave hope to Nirmala Goud, 19, a Dalit woman from Hyderabad, who was deserted by her family in 2015 after her father married for the second time.

Goud initially eked out a living as a domestic maid. After changing several jobs, she finally turned to the flesh trade in desperation. She was caught by state authorities, and sent to a state home for women in September.

“If I can get Rs 1,000 pension, I will complete my SSLC [Secondary School Leaving Certificate] and get a decent job and marry,” said Goud.

The government expects the scheme to cost the state Rs 150 crores a year.

“Our assessment shows that nearly 65% of the [potential] beneficiaries are from the Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes, and 32% from the Muslim minority,” said Adhar Sinha, a senior bureaucrat with the Telangana government.

“These groups [beneficiaries] are vocal and volatile enough in the rural vote banks,” said minister KT Rama Rao in whose constituency of Sircilla the issue of suicides of handloom workers had gone unaddressed for long despite several agitations by the community to draw the attention of the government to their plight.

Rao, popularly known as KTR, is the chief minister’s son.

Part of state’s welfare push

The Telangana government has boasted that it has the largest welfare budget of any state in the country, at over Rs 36,000 crores per annum.

The current scheme is one of 14 sops the government has launched since 2014 that focus on the Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and minorities. Other existing schemes for women include Kalyana Lakshmi (fixed deposit for the girl child), Shadi Mubarak (financial support for Muslim girls) and Asara pensions (Rs 1,000 pension scheme for aged women, widows and beedi workers).

Speaking to reporters in the Assembly after the latest scheme was announced, the Telangana chief minister said: “If need be, I am ready to increase the welfare budget to 30% of the [annual] budget from the present 26%.”

Lure of the gulf

After Kerala and Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are the largest exporters of labour to the Gulf. Over five lakh workers from Hyderabad in Telangana, and two lakh from Anantapur, Kadapa and Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, are working in the six Gulf nations.

“Almost 90% of them are hired for menial jobs as house maids, gardeners, plumbers or electricians,” said Bhim Reddy, who organises support and help for these economic migrants. “About 10% work as teachers, nurses and accountants. At least 5% are languishing in jails for violating the laws of the land and for demanding more wages or facilities and also wanting to return mid-way before the end of their contract.”

The scheme is expected to provide their dependents in Telangana with some relief.

The scheme was conceived following a recommendation by a state level committee that was formed in 2014 to study the indebtedness of rural women in the wake of farmers’ suicides, as well as a proposal made last year by KTR and Talasani Srinivas Yadav, then the Non-Resident Indian Affairs minister, for the need to initiate welfare initiatives for families of Telangana citizens in the Gulf.

The committee found that widows of farmers were driven to prostitution, and incidence of child labour and school drop-outs was rampant in 12 of Telangana’s 31 districts. It also recorded instances of how micro-finance companies and private lenders had driven single parent families to migrate to cities and even harassed them there.

“In Ranga Reddy district a teenage school girl was kept in a micro-finance office for a day till her mother cleared the monthly instalment of the loan they had taken,” said the report.

While the Congress, Left and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen have welcomed the announcement of the new scheme, there are critics too. Rival Telugu Desam Party MLA A Revanth Reddy said it will only benefit a select category of women.