For the thousands of elderly people gathered at Parliament Street here this week, it was a moment of guarded victory.
“The most important issue we have agreed upon is that everyone should get a pension and the APL/BPL [Above and Below the Poverty Line categories] distinction should be done away with,” Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh told the crowd.
He had just come from Parliament, where he told the Rajya Sabha that the Prime Minister had authorised him to negotiate a consensus with the protesting senior citizens on the expansion of the pension system. Currently, the Central Government provides Rs. 8.5 thousand crore to three crore people, including the aged poor who get Rs. 200, and widows and disabled people who get Rs. 300 per month.
“A final agreement is likely in the next three to four months,” he said.
In a deal made with the Pension Parishad — as this assembly of people, led by social activists including Aruna Roy and Baba Adhav, calls itself — Mr. Ramesh agreed to expand the pension net to include more categories of vulnerable women and disabled people. While there is still uncertainty about a hike in the monthly pension sum – the Minister has assured an increase from Rs. 200 to Rs. 300, while activists demand Rs. 2000 – the government seems willing to index the amount to the inflation rate, so that the figure will be adjusted every year.
In a concession to the United Progressive Alliance government’s political agenda, activists have agreed to pension delivery through the Direct Benefits Transfer scheme, although the use of Aadhaar has been conspicuously avoided.
Pension Parishad elated
The Pension Parishad was cautiously elated. “This is a significant shift since the government is accepting our demand for universalisation of pensions,” said Nikhil Dey, after Mr. Ramesh had left the venue. “This will expand the beneficiaries from three crore to nine crore people.”
However, the activists are unhappy that no concrete timeline has been fixed for the implementation of the universal pension scheme.
“We cannot agree to this indefinite timeline… There is no assurance that many of the old people assembled at the dharna will even survive the hardships and indignities they are facing day after day,” said activist Aruna Roy, insisting that the government put the scheme in action in the current financial year 2013-14.
Other activists pointed out that with elections due next year, any long-term promises made by this government may prove useless.
“I cannot make this promise now because I am not Kuber [ie. god of wealth] of this country. The key to this country’s finances is not in my hands, they are in somebody else’s hands and only they can say whether this would be implemented from this year or next year,” said Mr. Ramesh, adding that “some issues of agreement can be implemented by next year and some others in the next two to three years.”
Amount to be paid
The amounts to be paid are also a bone of contention. “I agree that today Rs. 300 a month is nothing and it should be increased,” the Minister told the Rajya Sabha. However, he would not publicly commit to what activists say was the agreed figure of Rs. 500 per month for the first phase starting this year.
“We are insisting on Rs. 2,000 as that is half the minimum wage rate,” said Baba Adhav.
“We will not compromise on our basic demands,” Ms. Roy said even as protesters started to disperse on Thursday evening. “We are willing to negotiate with the government over the next few months, but if they will not agree to implement changes this year, we will come back with larger numbers.”