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Insecure in the gathering dusk

By Vandana Bhatia

Being old and poor in India often means being hungry and helpless. The decade-old National Old Age Pension Scheme is a buffer for this section of the population, but it is not universal and leaves out many vulnerable people

If a person has spent her or his life struggling as a daily wager or agricultural labourer earning subsistence wages, food security in old age remains a distant dream.  The elderly are left even more insecure when their children migrate for their own survival. Many old people live alone in villages, fighting a daily battle, sometimes living off the generosity of other villagers who are also poor, at times begging.

For decades, the Indian State overlooked this vulnerable section of the population. In a national broadcast on July 28, 1995 the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao announced that the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP) would come into effect from August 15, 1995. The NSAP includes the National Old Age Pension Scheme (NAOPS) and the National Family Benefit Scheme (NFBS).

Both are implemented along with the Annapurna scheme. The NOAPS and Annapurna are schemes for the aged poor; Annapurna gives 19 kilos of free grain to old people left out of the pension cover. The NFBS gives immediate relief in the form of a one-time cash payment of Rs 10,000 in case of the death of the breadwinner in the family.

The NSAP started as a centrally sponsored programme that gave assistance to the state governments to provide benefits according to the central government’s guidelines. In 2002-03 the NSAP and Annapurna were transferred to the state governments and given the status of a state scheme with financial assistance from the central government. The states are now required to have a mandatory minimum provision for these schemes in their budgets. So far, this arrangement has not worked and many states completely rely on the central government for funds.

The Annapurna scheme has been withdrawn in states like Madhya Pradesh and Haryana. The NFBS is in dire straits; its coverage was only 35.8% of the target in 2004-05. Many of the stumbling blocks are common across the three schemes---limited targets, limited allocations and no guidelines for implementation.

The National Old Age Pension Scheme is a direct transfer of income to the aged poor. People above 65 years of age and below the poverty line are entitled to a monthly pension. In some states like Delhi, the age criterion has been revised to 60 years. The Ministry of Rural Development uses a set of calculations to determine the poorer among the poor and arrive at the number of people eligible for pensions.

The financial assistance under the NOAPS till 2005-06 was Rs 75 per person per month. Some states such as Delhi, Maharashtra and Sikkim make a significant additional contribution to this amount but as many as 18 states and union territories have been paying Rs 100 or less per month. For the poor and destitute, Rs 100 per month can only be an inadequate amount.

In the budget for 2006-07, the central government has raised its contribution from Rs 75 per month per pensioner to Rs 200. This is welcome but it should not legitimise a cutback in state contributions.  Besides, central government employees and pensioners get an increment twice a year that is pegged to the consumer price index. The NOAPS should similarly be reviewed every six months. Because nutritional vulnerability and the threat of starvation and death are more imminent in old age for the poor, the government must universalise pension benefits.
 
In December 2005, the Commissioners to the Supreme Court  (in the context of Right to Food case) raised a number of issues—such as coverage, verification of existing beneficiaries, the identification of new beneficiaries and the distribution process. 

The actual coverage does not even meet the limited targets set by the government. The Commissioners report said that against a target of 58.09 lakh beneficiaries for 22 states for which the data was available, the potential coverage based on the utilisation figures was only 51.92 lakh in 2004-05. This was the combined coverage under the NOAPS and state pension schemes (wherever applicable).

The guidelines state “Village panchayats and relevant municipalities shall report every case of the death of a pensioner immediately after its occurrence to the appropriate sanctioning authority. The sanctioning authority shall ensure that payments are stopped thereafter.” In practice the verification procedure is inadequate. The lists are often not updated and continue to include the names of people who have passed away. This leads to either pilferage or unutilised funds and a denial of benefits to other deserving elderly people.
 
The lack of verification has hamstrung the scheme. According to a report on August 27, 2005 in The Times of India, a door-to-door survey was conducted in Delhi in February 2005 for the first time to ascertain what happens to the Rs 350 a month given to 1,56,131 senior citizens. It found that 27,000 ‘beneficiaries’ were untraceable and 10,131 were dead.  The report said, “The Social Welfare Department of the Delhi government has been paying old age pensions to 10,131 dead persons and about Rs 5-6 crore of the taxpayers’ money is lying unused—locked in bank accounts and post offices.”  In Delhi, the pension is credited to the bank accounts of the beneficiaries on a quarterly basis.

On July 8, 2005, The Telegraph newspaper similarly said, “The Nagaland government is facing a major problem weeding out dead pensioners.” It said that in some places grandchildren were withdrawing the money while in other places people totally unrelated to the pensioners were using the money.

In many states, the disbursement procedure is problematic. For example, in Gaya district in Bihar, old people are expected to come to the block office to receive the money on the day the pension is distributed. Many people miss the advance information about the date and often the block office is far away from the village—at times even 10 kilometres away. Two elderly people in Bodh Gaya collapsed as they struggled on their way to the block office in the sweltering heat of June 2005. The block officer later testified this in the presence of the District Collector.

After more than a decade, the NOAPS is still not fully functional. Effective implementation requires awareness among citizens of their entitlement. The scheme also needs a multidimensional overhaul with an enhanced budget, better utilisation, clearer guidelines and a non-negotiable commitment from the government to provide social assistance to all people in the dusk of their lives.

(Vandana Bhatia is a Research Associate with the Office of the Commissioners to the Supreme Court. The views in this article are her own and not of the Office of the Commissioners or of the Right to Food Campaign.)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2006