Demands for a universal pension scheme got bolstered with a large number of underprivileged people including farmers, domestic workers, single women, disabled persons, sex workers and trans-genders from more than 20 States beginning a five-day dharna at Jantar Mantar here on Monday.
The campaign for universalisation of Rs.2,000 as monthly pension for every elderly above 60 years in age and does not come under the tax slab is being spearheaded by Aruna Roy of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS) along with Dr. Baba Adhav, the veteran leader of the unorganised workers in Maharashtra.
Addressing the protestors, Ms. Roy said: “Pension is a right that the aging working poor have earned by virtue of having given the best years of their lives to contribute to the economy. They have grown food for the country's population, built houses and highways, cleaned streets, collected materials for recycling, cooked food and looked after households and assembled electronic goods.”
“Society must provide a decent pension for these people when they are no longer able to work. From where do you expect these poor people to pay for every thing, especially when you don't provide them even half the minimum wages?” Ms. Roy asked.
At present, all elderly over 60 years from the Below Poverty Lines category get Rs.200 per month as pension under the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme (IGNOAPS) with the State governments adding usually lesser and in some cases higher amount to the pension.
According to rough estimates there are around two crore beneficiaries of the Government pension scheme against the total elderly population of 10 crore.
The Pension Parishad, an assembly of organisations demanding a universal pension scheme, has rejected the IGNOAPS pension calling it “pittance” which can't ensure a dignified living to the elderly.
“The Government pension is a pittance which is in no way sufficient for the elderly. That is why we are asking for at least Rs.2,000 or half the minimum wage whichever is higher,” said Nikhil Dey, leader of MKSS, who is also part of the Pension Parishad.
On the issue of locating money for the scheme, Prabhat Patnaik, former member of the Kerala State Planning Board and member of the UN Commission, said the State has to do the needful. “If a child doesn't get food, you don't blame the child. In the same manner if the elderly starve, it is the State's duty to ensure a dignified living to them who can't be blamed for being poor.”
Patnaik said that with 14 per cent (Centre and State combined) India has the lowest tax GDP ratio in the world so it has enormous amount of potential to increase taxes.
Referring to the Arjun Sengupta Committee which had talked about modest cess increase of 0.5 per cent to generate funds for social welfare schemes, Mr. Patnaik said even if the government increases the tax by 2 more per cent to 16 per cent, India will still be the country with lowest tax GDP ratio and its elderly population will be able to live a decent life as well.
During the public hearing, most of the elderly talked about extreme despair and how they felt excluded from all entitlements and services even as they struggling to hold their lives together.
Sixty-seven-year-old Ramani Devi doesn't have anyone except a son who has abandoned her in her village in Rajasthan. Now she is left at the mercy of her neighbours. She doesn't get the pension because she doesn't have a BPL card.
“Even if I tell you (what I eat to survive), will you never be able to imagine what I eat?” said Ms. Devi when asked how she survives. Now only the hope for a decent pension has brought her to Delhi from the interiors in Rajasthan.