The demand for a universal pension isn’t an issue of charity, but of equal dignity and equal rights.

In villages I travel to in every corner of India, when I ask who are the poorest and most vulnerable among all households, the answers are remarkably similar. Almost everywhere, they speak of old people, single women and their dependants, and disabled and infirm people. It is these groups that live perennially at the edge of hunger: one health calamity or family emergency will push them directly into starvation. The same groups recur in conversations in urban slums (but here they also speak of much larger numbers of child-headed households — single children or groups of siblings with no adult carers — and houseless populations).

Survival is even more fragile for those people who combine several of these vulnerabilities — for instance a blind, ageing widow living alone, or a homeless single woman with mental illness. A disabled man, who is also landless and dalit, will find it even harder to bring food to the plates of his children.

The country’s most significant social protection programme is the Mahatma Gandhi NREGA, which legally guarantees every rural household 100 days of wage employment in public works. But many of these groups, which are most vulnerable to hunger, are effectively excluded even from wage work because they may lack the bodily strength required for hard manual work in an NREGA work-site due to age, disability or illness. In most NREGA sites, I find old people with bent backs and aching limbs still trying to dig pits or break stones only to stay alive. Disabled persons are rarely permitted, and single women discouraged because most work is done in family groups. And the programme excludes cities.

It is remarkable that those who are popularly known to be most impoverished and vulnerable to hunger remain exiled to the margins of policy and public investment. Article 41 of the Constitution enjoins that “the State shall, within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provision for securing the right to work, to education and to public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement…”(emphasis added). But it was only in 1995 that the central government first launched an old age pension scheme, providing a modest Rs.200 to old people above 65 years who were officially identified to be poor, assetless and with no adult carers.

Our field studies establish that even this meagre assistance, difficult to secure because of stringent requirements and corrupt delivery mechanisms, still literally made the difference between life and death for old people, who otherwise had no option except to toil or beg until their last day if they were to eat. Many state governments supplemented the central government amount; others covered larger populations of the aged. The central government eventually in 2007 lowered the age limit to 60 years, and expanded coverage to all aged persons who were identified to be ‘BPL’. In 2009, pensions were extended to widows above 40 years, and to severely disabled persons (80 per cent disability), but these once again were restricted to the ‘official’ poor.

The site designated for public protests in the national capital, Jantar Mantar, has in recent months repeatedly seen an unusual motley assembly of impoverished aged persons, single women and some disabled groups, under the banner of Pension Parishad, demanding an enhanced universal pension. The central government agreed to undertake a comprehensive review of the national programmes for social assistance, and I was invited to be a member of the committee for this. The committee’s report has many fine elements, especially in its recognition of many new vulnerable categories of single women, and the needs of less disabled persons. But in coverage and amount of pensions, it falls short of the unmet need — too long delayed — for fundamental revamping of the idea of social assistance in India.

But first, the many positive gains. The central government agrees to recognise the intense vulnerabilities of a range of single women beyond just older widows. Widows above 18 years will be covered, recognising the discrimination they face within families, in local communities and the market. Even more significant in the struggles of single women is the official acknowledgment, for the first time, of the enormous oppression — in work and in social arrangements and customs — of women who are separated, abandoned or divorced, and also women who never marry. The ‘half-widow’ in areas of conflict — whose spouse has been ‘disappeared’ by security forces, but because she has no evidence of his death, survives in the twilight zone between married and widowed women — have also been recognised, for coverage after three years of his disappearance. All disabled people of any age with 40 per cent disabilities will also be covered.

However, the amount of pension fixed at Rs.300 is far too low, and without any rational basis. Even if we index for inflation the original amount of Rs.200 , fixed in 1995, this would be Rs.700 today. But if we link it to minimum wages, and pensions are only a third of the minimum wage, we get around Rs.1320.

Even more gravely, the proposal continues the current targeting criteria based on BPL selection, which we know to be highly flawed, divisive and exclusionary. Official poverty lines are notoriously capricious: government studies themselves have established that if you are poor, there are more chances that you will not be identified by the administration to be officially poor.

Targeting therefore should be given up immediately, and except only for those who are wealthy or in the formal sector, there should be universal coverage of all old persons, single women and disabled people with pensions. The Pension Parishad rightly underlines that this is not a demand of charity, but of equal dignity and equal rights. If people in government and the formal private sector take for granted pensions as a right, why not those who have spent a lifetime in underpaid, uncertain, back-breaking work, and in penury, neglect and stigma?

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