Barefoot Harsh Mander

Forgotten between the cracks

“Why can’t your sons look after you?” officials ask the pensioners. Their pleas that their sons refuse to provide for them — being too poor, or alcoholics, or just uncaring — fall on deaf years. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty  

A singular gathering — of the wretched, of society’s rejects. Destitute people, struggling to survive with whatever shreds of dignity they can salvage. Old people without caregivers, widows and abandoned women, disabled persons, transgendered persons, criminalised tribes and homeless people.

One by one, they share their stories — stoically, almost without emotion. Of their many intricate configurations of suffering, of living continuously at the edge, of an uncaring state, of social indignities, but also of resilience, struggle and humanity. The occasion is a public hearing in July, 2015 on social protection in Tamil Nadu, organised by Pension Parishad, before a panel including Justice Prabha Sridevan, Aruna Roy, trade unionist Annie Raja, and I.

A small girl with profound intellectual disabilities is clutched by her young mother. She tells us: her husband, an alcoholic, rarely works. Leaving home a slightly older son to tend her daughter, she sets out each day scouring for agricultural wage work. If lucky, she finds employment at dirt wages seven days a month. How can she feed her children without any social assistance?

Sushila, an ageing blind single woman lives alone, with no one to take care of her. She applied for pension years ago. She pleads often with village officials, but in vain. She has no option but to survive by begging.

Both Bhoopati and her husband are physically challenged. They managed to get their daughter married, but her husband deserted her and she returned home. Their eldest son fell mentally ill. They briefly received a government monthly pension of a thousand rupees, but this abruptly stopped. Their only sustenance now is 20 kilograms of PDS rice at one rupee a kilogram.

Complaints of pensions suddenly being terminated resound through the hearing. A painstakingly manicured transgendered person speaks of the Tamil Nadu pension for trans-people suddenly being terminated.

Vedi is a young man on a wheelchair, both his legs enfeebled by childhood polio. He reports paying a bribe of Rs.10000 to get his pension sanctioned, and Rs.5000 for an MGNREGA job-card, but both to no avail. Charges of bribes spring up over and over again before the panel. A woman widowed nine years earlier, who lives with her 85-year-old widowed mother-in-law, claims that village officials ask for Rs.5000 to sanction the pension, and Rs.50 from each release, even when it comes through the bank.

Anjali was 23-years-old when her husband abandoned her with two small children. She is unable to send them to school. Lakshmi is even younger, holding an infant. Her husband died during her first pregnancy. She is illiterate and can only earn a living through wage work in construction sites. But where can she leave her baby? When she applies for pension, she is told she is underage to qualify, although rules in Tamil Nadu allow for pensions for widows as young as 18 years. But only on paper.

Many old people are also turned away because they have adult sons. “Why can’t your sons look after you?” officials ask them. Their pleas that their sons refuse to provide for them — being too poor, or alcoholics, or just uncaring — fall on deaf years. Again the rules, both central and state, don’t disqualify old people with adult sons for pensions. But in practice, a majority of those who spoke to us said this was the ground to turn them away.

Banyan, a wonderful organisation, rescues homeless mentally-ill women from streets in Chennai. Many ultimately remember who they are, and are welcomed back by their families. But several others remain abandoned and Banyan has settled them in protected communities. They remain seriously disabled, but officers cannot ‘see’ the disability, therefore none of them qualify for pensions.

Rajani was seven years in a mental hospital. She is much better now, but remains an epileptic. Her husband has gone blind, and their younger son also suffers epileptic fits. The pension they got was vital for the family’s survival, but it was again abruptly stopped a year earlier, and they are in dire straits.

Many people from a nomadic community also speak to us. “We used to be hunters, today we are regarded as thieves”. With no permanent home, they try to live by selling beads. They bathe in water which drips from sewer pipes. They have no pensions when they age, no ration cards, no voter cards.

Tamil Nadu is long regarded to run the finest social protection schemes in the country. But as the stories continued to pour in, the worrying picture emerged of this once model government also withdrawing stealthily from social protection, aggravated by its delivery systems mired in corruption. Through these fissures, growing numbers of the state’s most vulnerable populations are falling through the cracks, into desperate and hopeless destitution.

The views expressed here are personal.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 1:24:55 AM |

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