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Cry in the wilderness

Print edition : Jun 29, 2012 T+T-

By stopping social security pensions, the Karnataka government has put the lives of over 10 lakh poor in peril.

in Bijapur

Naveen Basavaraj Kuntoji is nine years old and suffers from cerebral palsy. His movements are greatly restricted, and it looks like he is in great pain every time he valiantly wills his body to do something. When he is hungry, he slowly lifts his hand and points to his mouth. When this correspondent visited his house a two-room shed of tin sheets that ends as soon as it begins he was sprawled outside while his parents swept and mopped around him. Like many other members of the Talwara community (a recognised Schedule Tribe) in north Karnataka, his father works as a daily wage agricultural labourer, earning Rs.150 on the days he gets work. He pays a monthly rent of Rs.300 for the shack which has, over the past 10 years, become his permanent dwelling.

With the prevailing drought, my daily wage has become insecure with little work to do till the rains, Kuntoji's father said. His wife was preparing lunch a thin soup made of pulses and jowar bhakri while Kuntoji's sister looked curiously at the camera. Plates were laid out inside the tin shed, which baked in the heat. His parents shuffled their few belongings around to make space for everyone to sit down. The family has a below poverty line (BPL) card which helps it buy monthly rations.

Kuntoji, as he is certified as 70 per cent disabled, was receiving from March 2009 the Physically Handicapped Pension (PHP), Rs.400 a month, from the State government. Kuntoji's father told Frontline that to get the pension approved he had paid a bribe of Rs.2,000 to a middleman at the gram panchayat in Almel, the village in which they reside, in Sindagi taluk of Bijapur district. But the pension, which was regularly disbursed through the local postman, was abruptly stopped in March 2011. Kuntoji's father, a semi-literate man who has studied up to third standard, has already paid a bribe of Rs.500 to another middleman. But there is no sign of the monthly pension yet.

The mood in Pahalwan Galli, a low-income ghetto of Muslims at the district headquarters in Bijapur, was frenzied when this correspondent visited the area. Most of the largely illiterate elderly residents hobbled to the banyan tree, a neighbourhood meeting point, and displayed a small red or green pocketbook containing a laminated pension card. Tajanbi Syed Madar Hakim had been receiving the Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension (OAP/SR73382) of Rs.400 a month from 1982 before the payment was stopped in June 2011. The 95-year-old said: My only source of income is gone. I live alone on my neighbours' charity as both my sons have deserted me. Why have I stopped receiving this pension?

Hajirabi Haider Khan Hakim, another resident of the neighbourhood, said: I have been receiving the pension regularly since 2000, when it was Rs.100. What has happened now? She dragged the 30-year-old widow Salima Bi, who stood silently with her four children three boys and one girl between the ages of five and 12 and wailed: This government has no concern for even helpless widows; their pensions have also been stopped.

Stopping Pension

The distribution of social security pensions (SSPs) across four categories was stopped in Karnataka in February 2011. At that time there were more than 42 lakh beneficiaries in the four categories (three of which are Centrally sponsored schemes) of pensions implemented by the Directorate of Social Security and Pensions (DSSP) of the Revenue Department.

Of the four, the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension (IGNOAP) and the Sandhya Surakhsa Yojane (SSY, the State-sponsored scheme) provide Rs.400 a month to citizens above the age of 60 and 65 years respectively whose income does not exceed Rs.20,000 a year. The Destitute Widow Pension (DWP) provides Rs.400 a month to widows whose annual income does not cross Rs.12,000 in rural areas and Rs.17,000 in urban areas. The same income criterion applies for PHPs. Persons whose extent of disability is between 40 and 75 per cent are paid Rs.400 a month and those certified as being more than 75 per cent disabled are paid Rs.1,000 a month.

The Revenue Ministry's reason for stopping pension payments was that there were a large number of bogus beneficiaries. In February 2011, it ordered a detailed survey and verification process to identify the exact number of beneficiaries and to weed out fake claimants. The number of beneficiaries under these four SSPs had grown from 16 lakh in 2006 (total expenditure: Rs.400 crore) to more than 42 lakh at the start of 2011 (total expenditure: Rs.1,100 crore).

(For comparison, the corresponding figures for 1991 and 2001 were 8.87 lakh and 12.52 lakh beneficiaries respectively.)

According to Dr D. Rajasekhar, Professor at the Centre for Decentralisation and Development at the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC) in Bangalore, there are two reasons for this increase: the tremendous surge in applications for social welfare pensions from the time the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power at the Centre; and second, Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa's largesse when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2008. Rajasekhar also said that expenditure on SSPs had a tendency to increase around election years.

The physical survey, which was to take three months, took almost nine months to complete. During this period, genuine beneficiaries such as Kuntoji and Tajanbi were denied their monthly pensions and were constantly pestering the postman, who is their only link to the opaque bureaucratic world. But their names had not made it to the revised list.

Price of incompetence

There were three main problems with the State government's move. The first is the callousness of the State in using the excuse of bogus beneficiaries to completely stop the payment of pensions to genuine beneficiaries whose lives depend on this small sum. This affected the rights of many genuine claimants and angered activists working with disabled people, senior citizens and destitute widows.

A.L. Janardhana, programme manager at the Association for People with Disability (APD), said: We accept that there are bogus beneficiaries, but why can't a survey be done while continuing the payment of pensions? The State government has access to its vast resources, so it should have ordered a scientific survey. And if they are using the excuse of bogus beneficiaries to restrict the rights of deserving, marginalised people, shouldn't they first realise that it is because of their inefficiency that there are bogus claimants?

The irony of the State government's action is hard to miss. The explosive rise in the number of beneficiaries has been taking place over the past five years, four of them under the BJP rule. The Revenue Department's claim only exposes the State government's incompetence in approving the payment of pensions to these bogus beneficiaries. Needy people such as Kuntoji and Tajanbi are directly paying the price. Over the past year there have been several reports in local newspapers about people running from pillar to post trying to find why their pensions were stopped.

A second problem with the government's move is that while it was supposed to conduct a physical survey as part of the verification process to quantify genuine claimants, there have been strong and widespread complaints about its lack of thoroughness. Thousands of genuine beneficiaries have been left out. Frontline spoke to 35 pensioners across Bijapur district who were receiving pensions regularly until last year and whose pension payments, which according to the DSSP should have resumed in February, have not restarted. They also stated that no official had visited them to verify their condition. ( Frontline chose Bijapur as a case study as it is one of the most backward districts in Karnataka, scoring very poorly on all human development indices.) This was reiterated by Gangadhar C., who works with the Rajya Angavikalara Aikyata Vedike (State Disabled Peoples' Forum) in Sindagi taluk in Bijapur district to raise disabled people's awareness about the various government schemes. He alleged: The physical verification has just not been done and the only people who continue to receive pensions are those who have either managed to bribe middlemen at the panchayat level or those who have some influence.

Rajashri Jainapura, the Tehsildar of Bijapur taluk, did not accept that there could be problems in the manner in which the physical survey was conducted. Once we received instructions for the physical verification, the information was passed on to the village accountants who did the actual verification at the field level. According to Rajashri Jainapura, of the 52,415 beneficiaries who were residents last year in Bijapur taluk, a survey of 50,490 beneficiaries was conducted, of which 10,770 cases were rejected. The reasons for rejecting their claims were: the beneficiaries had died, had moved, did not qualify as per the income criterion; or were receiving two pensions (the State government rules state that a beneficiary can receive only one pension at a time).

Similar criteria have been used to remove lakhs of beneficiaries off the pension rolls across Karnataka. According to the latest DSSP figures, 31.90 lakh beneficiaries have been verified as genuine and received pensions in March 2012. (Of them, 5.71 lakh received pensions under the IGNOAP, 11.29 lakh under the SSY, 9.36 lakh under the DWP and 5.52 lakh under the PHP.) This means almost 10 lakh pensioners have been removed from the list that was used at the start of 2011. In its haste to weed out bogus beneficiaries, the government has removed thousands of deserving beneficiaries. Case studies across Karnataka are being compiled by organisations working on these issues to challenge the State government, which insists that all physical surveys were thoroughly conducted. There is no doubt that there is an urgent need in Karnataka to identify correctly the elderly people, destitute widows and the disabled as the available figures are at best indicative.

Capping the numbers

The third problem with the State government's move is that in order to restrict in future the number of bogus beneficiaries, the Revenue Department issued an order on January 3, 2012, which placed a cap on the number of new beneficiaries in every district. A detailed breakdown of new beneficiaries per district per pension scheme that could be sanctioned was listed in the order.

The rationale for capping was left unexplained. This attracted the ire of activists and opposition political parties who called any move to cap social security pensions unscientific and not linked to actual numbers of Census 2011. State-wide protests against the move led to Chief Minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda himself withdrawing the controversial order on May 8, 2012.

Had this order come into effect, only a small number of people would have been beneficiaries under the various SSPs. For example, this year in Bangalore only 900 new beneficiaries could have received PHPs, while in Bijapur only 1,400 new beneficiaries could have been chosen as pensioners under the IGNOAP.

But the damage was already done. Activists have discerned a larger agenda behind the government's move. G.N. Nagaraj, State vice-president of the All-India Agricultural Workers Union, which concerns itself with the welfare of aged agricultural workers, termed the move to cap beneficiaries as irrational and whimsical. He said: The Planning Commission has directed States to cut down on these schemes and the numbers of beneficiaries. These schemes are important to the Central government because India is a signatory to international conventions and must show these results on paper. However, the government's allegiance is to the World Bank agenda to cut down on welfare spending, whether it is by cruel estimates of what constitutes the poverty line or by squeezing welfare schemes. And the State government is only too eager to comply.

Another activist, who did not want to be named, added: Elderly people, destitute widows and physically handicapped people are the most marginalised members in any society. The government should personally identify every one of them and give them their pensions so that they feel that they are recognised as important individuals rather than as useless people. Instead, the government tried to restrict the already meagre sums that they were getting. Imagine the melee outside the taluk office if they had given a finite number of pensions.

Even though this controversial order has been withdrawn, there is still scope for confusion. What will happen to the cases of Kuntoji and Tajanbi? Since their names do not figure in the revised list of beneficiaries, do they need to apply afresh? Or will their names be incorporated as part of the earlier list?

Back in Bijapur, Kuntoji's father had some happy news as he displayed his son's new medical certificate issued by the Chief Medical Officer of the taluk public hospital. But his joy was tinged with disappointment; Kuntoji had again been certified as being only 70 per cent disabled. If he had been certified as 75 per cent disabled, he would have been eligible for a pension of Rs.1,000 a month.

Frontline met a few people during its visit to Bijapur whose minor disabilities were certified at more than 75 per cent, while someone like Kuntoji, who needed to be assisted in all his routine tasks, was certified as only 70 per cent disabled. Many stories of corruption at the local level were told and retold, and some even alleged that the whole process of certifying someone as 75 per cent disabled could be managed if the right amounts were paid.

D. Rajasekhar had conducted a detailed study in 2009 on the disbursal of SSPs in Karnataka. He recalled: The whole process of distribution of pensions at the local level is very corrupt. There are middlemen who facilitate the procurement of pensions for a certain sum, and even the postmen, who are the final points of delivery, take their cut. For example, if they are supposed to deliver a pension of Rs.400, they give only Rs.350 or Rs.360 after subtracting their cut.

He also added that governments had always found ways of rationing out social welfare pensions even though this only took a marginal toll on the state's exchequer. One of the main points of his findings was that instead of reaching the poorest of the poor, these welfare pensions often served the better-off among the targeted communities, thus failing in their intent.

Frontline's investigation matches his findings. There are thousands of bogus beneficiaries, but the government's move to deal with this problem by first stopping the payment of all pensions for more than a year; then conducting the exercise of physical verification inefficiently, depriving genuine beneficiaries of their pensions; and proposing to place a cap on the number of new beneficiaries is full of loopholes. In the meantime, people like Naveen Basavaraj Kuntoji and Tajanbi Syed Madar Hakim languish in extreme poverty wondering how to engage with the Kafkaesque bureaucracy so that their meagre pensions are restored.