In the latest move on its social welfare agenda, the government may expand its pension scheme, widening the net for widows, single and divorced women, disabled people, Dalits and tribal senior citizens, as well as increasing the amount paid to older people.

The Rural Development Ministry, which is proposing the expansion, estimates the additional cost at more than Rs. 18,000 crore per year.

The Ministry has just accepted the recommendations made by a panel, set up in June, to study the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP), which consists of pension schemes for various disadvantaged groups.

Where will the money come from? “That is up to Mr. Chidambaram [Finance Minister] to figure out,” said Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh. “I have accepted all the recommendations,” he said.

The issue is likely to be discussed at the Congress party’s samvad baithak – a stock-taking exercise and dialogue between party and government – in Surajkund on Friday.

The biggest financial implication would come from the recommendation to universalise assistance for the disabled. Currently, only those below the poverty line (BPL) are eligible. Only those with more than 80 per cent disability – a definition which leaves out many with severe hearing impairments, or even amputations of the lower parts of legs or arms – are eligible. Children are not covered.

“In view of the high social justification, it is suggested that disability pension may be made universal,” said the panel, barring only certain categories of the clearly well-to-do. It urged that the age restrictions be removed and people with 40 per cent disability be included, and those with severe or multiple disability get double the assistance. It also wanted the assistance amount increased from Rs. 300 to Rs. 500, with a doubled amount for those with severe or multiple disability.

So far as the aged are concerned, the panel shied away from a recommendation to universalise a pension to include non-BPL senior citizens, noting that “affordability is a major issue” and that this was a “larger policy issue.” However, it did insist that all senior citizens from scheduled castes and tribes be included, whether on the BPL list or not. It also increased the Central government share of the pension from Rs. 200 to Rs. 300.

Another key recommendation is the pension scheme for poor widows, which acknowledges current social realities. Earlier, only widows above the age of 40 were eligible, excluding younger widows who may have young children and actually need even more help. Single women and those who have been abandoned or are separated were not covered, despite the fact that they face similar discrimination. The panel recommended that widows and divorced, separated or abandoned women over the age of 18 be brought into the pension net, along with never-married women above 40.

The panel recommended that assistance provided to poor families on the death of the “primary breadwinner” – interpreted as male – needs to be expanded to include all earning members, including women.

The panel had also suggested that the NSAP be re-converted into a centrally-sponsored scheme, with a mandatory condition that State governments contribute at least an additional 25 per cent. States would be free to implement additional schemes as well.

  • Age restrictions for disability pension to be removed

  • All senior citizens from scheduled castes and tribes, whether or not on BPL list, to be included