Woes of those who wait for social security pension in Kerala

Kerala has a social security triumph, by ensuring the economically challenged get a pension, but it also has a payment tribulation, with amounts this year delayed by four months. Tiki Rajwi talks to beneficiaries, to find out what this does for retirees dependent on the money

Updated - February 08, 2024 04:02 pm IST

Published - November 23, 2023 07:16 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

Radha Venu, 76, of Eroor in Ernakulam district with her social welfare pension of ₹1,600 which she received on Wednesday.

Radha Venu, 76, of Eroor in Ernakulam district with her social welfare pension of ₹1,600 which she received on Wednesday. | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Mani Lenin, 74, of Eroor in Ernakulam district with her social welfare pension of ₹1,600.

Mani Lenin, 74, of Eroor in Ernakulam district with her social welfare pension of ₹1,600. | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Mariyakutty, 87, who protested against non-receipt of her pension in early November, counting the pension amount she received on Tuesday.

Mariyakutty, 87, who protested against non-receipt of her pension in early November, counting the pension amount she received on Tuesday. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

For the last few months, Mary Jayashree has been waiting patiently for the arrival of her social security pension. The ₹1,600 a month cannot fully meet the educational expenses of her two daughters, says the homemaker from Nediyamcode, a panchayat ward in south Kerala, but it is still an amount due to her. The delay that has hit welfare pension payments in the State in recent months has affected thousands, and Jayashree, who is eligible for a widow pension, is no exception. She says resignedly, “We can only wait for it to arrive. You can’t simply go there [the pension office] and demand it.”

From August 2023 onwards social security pensions have been in the news for the wrong reasons: they have not been paid. Though orders have been issued in November to release the July payment immediately, there is no clarity on arrears. The government spends about ₹900 crore a month on pension disbursed to close to 60 lakh beneficiaries.

The issue has quickly become part of an impassioned debate on the troubled Centre-State relationship, in particular on the fiscal front that has been raging for some time now. The CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government has blamed hostile Union government policies for Kerala’s wider financial crisis. The delay also acquired a political and social dimension with the Opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) attacking the government for ignoring the disadvantaged sections while splurging crores on the November 1-7 Keraleeyam 2023 celebrations, which — in the government’s words — was meant to show “Kerala’s progress, achievements, and cultural heritage to the world”.

For many, the monthly pension of ₹1,600 is indispensable. K.V. Sarasan, 77, from Edavanakkad, Ernakulam district, illustrates the predicament of elderly beneficiaries. He and his wife Remani, who is 75, require close to ₹5,000 to pay their monthly medical bills. Sarasan is also a heart patient. “Perhaps it is not enough to meet all our needs, but we have no other income. People like us, in fact, cannot do without these monthly payments. When there is a delay, we are forced to borrow money, and run up a debt,” he says.  

Begging for a pension

In early November, two women in their 80s, Mariyakutty and Annamma Ouseph, as a way of protest, took to seeking alms at Adimali town in Idukki district, on failing to receive their monthly pensions. They received wide media coverage and this contributed to keeping alive the heated debate on the pension arrears. A smear campaign, allegedly intended to discredit Mariyakutty, misfired. Meanwhile, senior Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala and actor and BJP leader Suresh Gopi said they would personally pay the pensions of ₹1,600 each to the two elderly women until the government disbursed the amount. Subsequently, on November 16, the Finance department issued orders sanctioning funds for distributing the social security pensions and welfare fund board pensions for July.

“There are many elderly people who depend on these pensions so that they don’t have to approach their children for their meagre needs, including buying medicines,” notes L.N. Selvaraj, 67, a pensioner and former daily wage earner, from Thiruvananthapuram district. But Selvaraj also views the issue in a larger context. “The UDF too had run up arrears in their time, so it is not something you blame the Left government alone. Besides, you cannot ignore the fact that it is the LDF government which increased the pensions to ₹1,600 a month, in 2021-22,” he says. Through the 2016-17 Budget, the Oommen Chandy-led UDF government had increased the old age pension to ₹1,500 and extended the benefit of the widow pension to women who were deserted by their husbands for “more than five years.”

The social security pensions consist of the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension, the Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension, the Agriculture Labour Pension, the Indira Gandhi National Disability Pension, and the Pension for Unmarried Women above 50 Years. Kerala’s emphasis on social protection through welfare pensions has also evolved into a Kerala Model. 

At the same time, the predicament of the social security pensioners should not be seen in isolation, but as an extension of the aggregate financial crisis faced by Kerala, says B.A. Prakash, former chairman of the Kerala Public Expenditure Review Committee and the State Finance Commission. “The State is facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis and vulnerable sections, or any other group that hopes to get benefits from the government, will be affected,” he warns.

State push for pension

Successive governments in Kerala have sought to deal with welfare pensions with sensitivity over the decades, given the State’s traditional emphasis on social welfare. Governments of the LDF and the UDF have, over the years, increased the pension amounts from three-digit figures to four-digit ones, making Kerala one of the highest-paying States.

In 2000, the Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension stood at ₹100, Agriculture Labour Pension at ₹120, while the pension for unmarried women above 50 years, the old age pension, and the disability pension was at ₹110. At the same time, timely distribution of the pensions has been a matter of concern, as the Oommen Chandy government observed in its Budget for 2015-16: “Timely availability of pensions to our disadvantaged is as important as its quantum.”

The Economic Review brought out by the State Planning Board for 2022 observed that Kerala had achieved “significant progress” in ensuring social protection. “Over the past five years, welfare pensions have increased from ₹600 per beneficiary in 2016, to ₹1,600 per beneficiary in 2021. The number of social security pensioners, which was 34 lakh in 2015-16, increased to 52.38 lakh in October 2022. Of this, 32.67 lakh (62%) are women. Category-wise, 56% of beneficiaries fall under the old age pension, 27% in the widow category, and around 7% each for disabled and agriculture labour pension. Pension for unmarried women is given to 87,983 beneficiaries,” it noted. 

For the smooth distribution of social security pensions, the State government incorporated the Kerala Social Security Pension Ltd (KSSPL), a consortium comprising primary agricultural cooperatives, employees’ co-operative societies, and other primary co-operatives, in August 2018. The KSSPL raises funds from the cooperative societies at an interest rate of 8%. However, a Union government decision to treat ‘off-budget’ borrowings by the KSSPL as direct liabilities of the State and adjust them against the State’s Net Borrowing Ceiling had created problems for Kerala.

The Union government’s contribution to the social security pensions is minimal, Kerala’s Finance Minister K.N. Balagopal was quick to point out last week. “Only about 5.5 lakh of the beneficiaries receive a small assistance from the Centre,” he says. The LDF government blames the sizeable cuts in Central transfers and pending payments from the Centre under various components and schemes, for Kerala’s fiscal predicament and its impact on social welfare programmes.

The financial commitment to operating the social security pensions is predictably a huge one. In the 2023-24 Budget, Balagopal, asserting the government’s “highest commitment to providing social security to the vulnerable sections of society,” had announced a Social Security Cess on petrol and diesel at the rate of ₹2 per litre towards the Social Security Seed Fund. The Budget had also announced a cess of ₹20 on Indian-made foreign liquor priced between ₹500 and ₹999, and ₹40 on bottles priced above ₹1,000. But even these cesses were expected to rake in only ₹1,150 crore annually, whereas the monthly spending itself is close to ₹900 crore, close to ₹11,000 crore annually. 

More complications arise

Meanwhile, in September this year, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) flagged another issue in connection with the distribution of social security pensions in the State. The CAG observed a problem in using cooperatives to distribute social security pensions under the direct-to-home (DTH) option. The CAG report on ‘Performance Audit on Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) of Social Security Pension Schemes,’ tabled in the State Assembly, noted that this mode of payment does not qualify as DBT since the pension payment is not done directly to beneficiaries and could lead to fraud. 

DBT, where the money is paid directly into bank accounts, and DTH are the two modes used by the State government to disburse the five social security pension schemes. The CAG wanted the State government to include more beneficiaries under the DBT umbrella. Between 2017-18 and 2020-21 — the period under audit — 50.79% of the beneficiaries received their pension amounts via DBT while 49.21% received it at home through the cooperatives. But pension officials defend the DTH mode citing the advanced age and health condition of many of the beneficiaries.

Ever hopeful

Meanwhile, pensioners hope the arrears for the remaining months, from August onwards, will be paid in the near future. “It was a big thing that the Left government raised the pensions to ₹1,600 a month. But what we also need to understand is that many beneficiaries simply cannot do without it,” says J. Patson, 69, who used to work as a cab driver in Ernakulam district. “I don’t get much work now. I need to buy medicines and repay a loan, which means even small amounts are necessary,” he says.

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