In July 2020, soon after the Covid-19 lockdown was lifted, 62-year-old Dukhan Singh fractured his leg when a wall collapsed on him in Ukamar village in Jharkhand’s Latehar district. As a small farmer with a meagre income, he had to borrow more than Rs 10,000 from relatives to pay his hospital bills. He planned to pay off his debts through the pension of Rs 1,000 that he is entitled to receive under a central government welfare scheme for senior citizens.

But for five months after his fracture, Dukhan Singh did not receive any pension money.

“I went to the post office several times, but they kept saying my pension has not yet come,” said Singh, a widower from an Adivasi community. “I did not even have enough money for rations, so I had to borrow even more to survive.”

Singh is not alone. Since July 2020, in the middle of a pandemic that has disrupted livelihoods across the country, the Jharkhand government stopped distributing pensions to nearly 10 lakh eligible widows, senior citizens and disabled beneficiaries in districts across the state.

The reason, according to state government officials, was the lack of money in Jharkhand’s coffers due to the central government’s delays in transferring funds to the state. In one district, an official claimed that a portion of its pension funds had to be redirected towards payments under the Modi government’s Covid-19 relief package.

Dukhan Singh did not receive pensions for five months after the Covid-19 lockdown. Photo: Kanhai Singh

How did pensions go missing?

Of the Rs 1,000 paid as pension each month the elderly, the disabled and to widows, Rs 200 comes from the central government while the remaining Rs 800 is the state government’s contribution.

After the nationwide lockdown was imposed in March 2020 to contain the spread of Covid-19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government announced a relief package for the poor which included the direct transfer of Rs 1,000 in two instalments to three crore senior citizens, widows and people with disabilities. This money was meant to be paid in addition to their regular pensions, and was to be distributed between April and June 2020, under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana.

An official in Jharkhand’s Latehar district collectorate, however, claimed that the state government did not receive this budgetary allocation from the Centre until the end of the year. The official, who is in charge of pension distribution, said that this forced the state government to use up its existing pension funds for the Covid relief payments under PMGKY.

“Because the central government’s funds for Covid relief did not come on time, we were asked to use up the Centre’s share of the pension funds to give people Rs 1,000 over two months,” said the official who did not wish to be named. “After that we could not pay people their regular pensions from just the state’s share of funds. That is not allowed as per the rules. This is why people’s pensions got stuck.”

Villagers from West Singhbhum district attended a public hearing in Chaibasa on February 16 to air their grievances about pensions. Photo courtesy: Right to Food Campaign

In West Singhbhum district, however, Collector Rajkamal Arava told that their pension funds were not utilised for Covid relief. “We made the Covid relief payments from the funds meant for disaster management,” said Arava. “But pensions were delayed because we did not receive the funds from the state government on time, probably because of delays in receiving the Centre’s share.”

Officials from Jharkhand’s department of women, child development and social security did not answer phone calls or respond to email queries sent on February 26. also sent email queries to the union ministry of social justice on February 25, but did not receive a response.

The Latehar official claimed this was the first time that such a delay in payment of pensions had occurred in the state. “I don’t know when the state government finally received funds from the Centre, but at the district level we received the money on January 22,” he said. “On January 29, we finished processing it and started disbursements.”

Two weeks later, Singh finally received Rs 5,000 as his pension money for five months, from September 2020 to January 2021.

Other districts in Jharkhand are now following suit, and pensions are gradually being handed out to registered beneficiaries who had not been paid for several months.

Begging for money to survive

For vulnerable beneficiaries on the ground, the half-year delay in pensions had a crippling impact. It has led to hunger, debt and distress.

Seventy-year-old Devnandad Jadhav, for instance, claims he had to beg for money during the months he did not receive pensions. “My son and I barely earn a few thousand rupees each season by working on our small farm, so even Rs 1,000 as pension has never been enough for ration-pani [food and water],” said Jadhav, who lives in Latehar’s Ledgain village. “But at least it would have been some help if we received the pension.”

Jadhav suffers from hypertension and says he often collapses while walking, but did not have money to buy medicines in the latter half of 2020. “Now I cannot even remember how much money I have borrowed from people, but I have to pay it back,” he said.

Devnandan Jadhav had to beg for money when he did not receive his pensions for months. Photo: Kanhai Singh

Jadhav, Dukhan Singh and every other pensioner spoke to claimed that they did not actually receive the Covid relief payment of Rs 1,000 because of which their pensions were allegedly delayed. “I heard that some ladies in the village received that money, but no one in my family got it,” said Jadhav.

According to development economist Jean Dreze, this delay in pensions and the lack of financial support for needy populations in Jharkhand demands investigation. “What is shocking is not only that pensions were held up when poor people needed them most, but also that no one paid attention to this for months,” said Dreze. “Someone should be held accountable. Alas, this is unlikely to happen.”

A huge gap

To hold the state government accountable for the missing pensions, activists from the Right to Food Campaign and other social justice groups in the state have been organising district and block-level protests and public hearings for the past month.

In Latehar, for instance, dozens of elderly people, widows and those with disabilities staged a protest outside the Barwadih block office on January 29.

In addition to beneficiaries who are on the government’s official pension rolls, these events have been attracting large numbers of other people who are eligible for pensions but have been excluded from various pension schemes.

In West Singhbhum district, for instance, Right to Food Campaign activists compared 2011 census data on the population of elderly, widows and people with disabilities with the official number of pensioners on the district administration’s rolls. “We found a huge gap of 64% in the numbers,” said Siraj Dutta, a member of the Right to Food Campaign. “Only 36% of elderly, widows and disabled persons in West Singhbhum are actually getting pensions, and most others who are in need are not getting them.”

The gap, according to Dutta, is possibly similar in other districts across the state.

Among those left out is Jitan Ram, a 65-year-old landless Dalit from Latehar’s Ledgain village who has a leg deformity that makes him unable to walk properly. The only work he has been able to find in the village is “dekh-rekh” – standing in people’s farms like a human scarecrow to fend off birds and animals. “I have never been paid for this work – farmers just give me food and clothes,” said Ram. His only son, a migrant labourer in Kerala, has not been able to send any money to his parents since the start of the pandemic.

Ram has repeatedly applied for a disability pension for the past seven years, but is always rejected. “My medical certificate says I have 30% disability, and the district office says I need 40% to be eligible for viklang [disability] pension,” said Ram, whose wife’s pension application was also rejected for two years before finally being accepted in January. So far, however, she has not yet received any pension amount.

“Rs 1,000 per month is not much in today’s times, but it is better than nothing at all,” said Ram. “It is very difficult to depend on others for food and money.”

Jitan Ram is unable to walk properly, but is not considered eligible for disability pensions. Photo: Kanhai Singh