Unorganised workers should be made eligible for universal old age pension.

During the last winter session of the outgoing Parliament, around 500 aged women and men, nearly all destitute and rural, camped in Delhi’s plunging temperatures barely a couple of kilometres from India’s Parliament, hoping vainly that the country’s lawmakers and indeed its people would hear their long-forgotten voices. They demanded a decent pension for all old people, something which those who retire in the formal sector take entirely for granted. But few heard their voices, and none heeded their claim. In the din of the election campaign which followed, their voices remain even more marginal, though they constitute nearly a tenth of the population.

The central government gives a monthly pension of Rs.200 to only one in five of the country’s old people, those identified as BPL, and this is topped up unevenly by various states. Even this paltry amount is delivered irregularly in most states. The poverty line is notoriously low, and official studies confirm that more than half poor people are not on official government lists. Moreover, these lists ignore poverty within families: three out of four aged women and one out of three old men are fully dependent on others for their sustenance.

The demand for universal old age pensions is not as charity but the due of unorganised workers. In 2000 and 2010, the annual growth rate was more than 7.5 per cent, but the annual growth of employment in the formal sector was less than 0.3 per cent. Therefore the greatest contribution to India’s economic growth came from the workers in the unorganised sector.

Just as formal sector workers receive pensions of around half their last pay drawn, the indigent old people who gathered last winter to make claims from India’s Parliament under the banner of Pension Parishad demanded a universal pension equivalent to half the statutory minimum wages of unorganised workers, roughly Rs.2000 a month. The wrinkled, timeworn people, during their winter pension vigil, spoke wistfully of what they would do if they actually got that amount. Suhagan Devi of Muzaffarpur in Bihar declared, “I’ll spend the money on my treatment of filaria due to which my son keeps me out of my house.” Another said simply, “If we get this pension, our children will take care of us.

One old couple declared, “Out of this, we’ll spend money on food, medicines, rent, and if we are able to save some money then we’ll set aside Rs.100 every month for our cremation.” Others made even more specific plans: One calculated, “If we get this money, we won’t sit idle, we’ll buy a goat, and that goat over a period of time will become a source of income and we’ll live a better life.” For another the plan was: “We don’t have a house, so from this money we’ll first build a house, and then if there is anything left, we’ll spend it on our food and other necessities.”

For yet others, Rs.2000 would only make bare survival possible. “I am handicapped, so I’ll spend this money on arrangements for me to move around and for medicines.” An old woman said, “We are a family of seven, my husband is a cancer patient; my son is disabled and his wife is a TB patient. Even basic needs such as food and medicines cost much more than Rs.2000 every month and we are under heavy debt. I don’t know what I will do with this Rs.2000.” Another elderly widow said, “I have two sons. One of them is deaf mute and the other one is a drunkard. Food, clothes, water, cost much more than Rs.2000.” Another remarked sadly, “We can survive on Rs.2000, but we cannot live a life of dignity on this money.”

But one old woman was more optimistic, “If I get this pension, I’ll use an auto-rickshaw to travel to hospital and get my medicines; also I’ll be able to eat good food. This much of money will satiate my soul. And most importantly, I won’t be a burden on my family anymore.”

On the last day of the dharna, an old widow from Bihar looked very distraught. Shankar, a senior activist of the Parishad comforted her. “Don’t worry, amma, you will be back in your village soon.”

“That is what I am worried about, son,” she replied. “Here in the dharna at least I ate three meals every day. I am terrified about how I will fill my stomach when I am back in my village.”