The life-cycle approach to public entitlement programmes in India has found greater coherence over the last decade, with significant social support being provided to the poor at different stages of their lives. Last summer an evaluation of five of these programmes - the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme, Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme, Public Distribution System (PDS), National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and Social Security Pensions - was initiated by the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and conducted by student volunteers in ten states across the country.

Every morning when the survey team was split up into pairs, the team assigned to do the pensioner interviews were always the most gleeful. This was not only because these questionnaires were considerably shorter but because these interviews gave us an opportunity to spend time with the elderly population and widows, who through their stories of grit and experience spanning decades, gave us a unique perspective on life in the village. They also left us with some of the most enduring memories from the survey.

These interactions importantly, redefined our ideas of pension beneficiaries as those who are merely 'dependent' on their families or unable to make productive contributions to the household and therefore more vulnerable, unable to bargain for their rights.

One of my strongest memories is from an interview with a widow pensioner in Akhtiyarpur village in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. The woman had lost her husband many years ago, soon after her first child was born and was now living with her daughter, who was also widowed. She vividly narrated to me how Gandhiji had held a meeting near her village in the early 1920s, encouraging the thousands of men and women present to take up the spinning of khadi.

Inspired, she learnt how to operate the charkha and spun cotton yarn for the local khadi gramudyog for over thirty years, for which she was paid on a piece-rate basis. It was this income that helped her bring up her children after her husband's death and she rarely had to ask anyone for financial help.

Bineshwari Monghi of Latehar had fallen off a jeep 15 years ago and has been paralysed since. He receives Rs 400 a month as old-age pension, but spends half that amount to hire a tempo to collect the amount from the bank, which is 8 km away.

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 •  Wages of old age

However, after the khadi gramudyog became unviable and shut down, the lady no longer had a source of income. Her health slowly deteriorated with age and her married children also moved out. She was forced to ask her son for money, and he occasionally helped. Since she started receiving her pension two years ago, some support has been restored and she is at least able to buy herself clothes and some essential medicines.

However, now with her daughter and her two small children having moved back in, the meagre pension amount of Rs.900 that she received once in three months is barely able to sustain her, let alone meet the needs of the extended family. She raises a modest demand: increase the pension amount to at least Rs.500 a month and pay it on time. A single month's delay is a severe setback to the household.

Interactions like these helped us understand what the needs of the elderly are, the extent to which these are being met by the pensions programme of the Government, and recognize that this form of social support, which often tends to be viewed as a 'dole', is in fact an entitlement, a right to a life of dignity.

The National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP)

Social pensions in India are provided to the poor elderly, poor widows and severely disabled under the Central Government's National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP). In 2012-13, 2.6 crore elderly, widowed and disabled citizens received pensions under the centrally-funded and state-implemented NSAP, making it the largest unconditional cash transfer scheme in India. Who gets social pensions, however, continues to be based on the much-criticised BPL (Below Poverty Line) criteria and limited by arbitrary poverty estimates set by the Centre. The divisiveness of this APL/BPL categorization has led to a large number of eligible beneficiaries being excluded.

We witnessed the fallout of this first hand in Jharkhand. When we organized a public hearing in Manika block of Latehar district we were amazed at the number of old men and women who poured into the cramped compound of the block headquarters, some stooping, some barely able to walk, but determined to register their demand for pension before the district and block officials.

Reflecting the sentiment of the crowd, one angry woman from Bishnuband village took the mike during the hearing and shouted at the officers present, "My husband died waiting for his pension, will I have to suffer the same fate?" There were many others like her who had submitted applications for pension on more than one occasion but were yet to receive a single payment because of the implicit 'cap' on the number of pensions to be sanctioned.

The call for universalising pensions along with other entitlements was resounding and aptly summed up in the slogan written on the charts on display at the venue: 'APL-BPL khatam karo, sabko ration pension do' (End the BPL-APL division, sanction ration and pension for all).

We also found that several states have expanded coverage through the introduction of state schemes or the relaxation of eligibility criteria. For example, Chhattisgarh's Sukhad Sahara Yojana and Bihar's Lakshmibai Vidhwa Pension Yojana extend coverage to widows who are below the age of 40 and even to those whose names are not on the BPL list. This positive development in Bihar towards universalising pension among widows, irrespective of their BPL status, was reflected in the village pension lists that often ran into hundreds and the condition of the overworked Bihar survey team that had to work to the point of exhaustion to verify all on the list!

Under NSAP, old age pensioners (aged 60-79 years) get Rs.200 every month while those who are 80 years and above get Rs.500. Widow pensioners receive Rs.300. While in many states these amounts remain as pitiably low as this, some state governments have 'topped-up' the amount being given by the central government. For example, in Tamilnadu and Himachal Pradesh, old age pensioners get Rs.1000 and Rs.700, respectively.

Almost all pension beneficiaries we spoke to felt that the pension amount was too low to be of any substantial help. The elderly need increasing medical attention with age; most widows are either singlehandedly supporting their children or, when living with their married children or in-laws, have no access to household income and hence no say in spending, even for their own needs. As Dularo, a 55-year-old tribal widow from Katkona village, Sarguja district, Chhattisgarh put it, "Rs.500 milna chahiye. Rs.200 mein kuch nahi hoga. Ab to ek sari bhi Rs.400 ki aati hai ((We should get Rs 500 at least. We can get nothing for Rs 200. Today, even a saree costs Rs 400)!"

Nevertheless, no matter how small the amount, social pensions are a lifeline for the poor elderly and widows in the country. Elderly couples who lived alone with no source of income and family support (and formed 14 per cent of the sample we interviewed), relied almost completely on the shared pension amount that came to husband and wife. This was supplemented only by loans from neighbours, which compound the insecurity of the household.

The reliance on pensions was evident in the words of Devratiya Devi, a 65-year-old tribal widow of Begdari village in Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh, who said "pension jab tak hum mare na tab tak nahin band hona chahiye. Akele mere jaise logon ko khava deta hai pension (We should not stop receiving pension till the day we die. For single persons like me this is the only source of support).. In the words of Vifai Devi, an 80-year-old widow from Getara village in Sargujua district of Chhatisgarh, .sarkar paisa deti hai, sarkar khana deti hai, bus usi par jeeti hun (The government gives me pension and food. That is all I survive on)."

Different geographies, different realities

A common complaint amongst the pension beneficiaries we met was the unpredictability of payments. While all states are supposed to have a fixed pattern for making payments either on a monthly, quarterly or half yearly basis, these schedules are rarely adhered to. Even where payments were bunched such as in Bihar (every three months) and Uttar Pradesh (every six months), there was no fixed date when pensioners could expect to receive their payment.

In Jharkhand, where payments are to be made on a monthly basis, pensioners reported receiving bunched payments for two to three months at a time. This is in spite of a Supreme Court directive that pension payments must be made on the 7th of every month. Orissa's management of cash payments and ensuring its timeliness marks a significant improvement over the last few years. The pension amount is disbursed by the Gram Panchayat, in cash, on the 15th of every month like 'clockwork' as one survey member observed. With very low reported delays, pension payments in the state have been made more predictable and considerably reduced the burden of travel on the elderly and infirm.

We found that the method of payment of pensions also varied across states. Except for Bihar and Orissa where pension payments are made in cash and Himachal where money orders are delivered to the homes of the elderly, banks and post offices were used for payment in all other states. With official policy requiring the pensioner to collect his/her payment in person and the average distance of the bank or post office from our respondents' villages being 5.5 km, even the very elderly and disabled are required to travel long distances to the bank or post office.

In Latehar we met Bineshwari Monghi, who had fallen off a jeep 15 years ago and has been paralysed since. He receives Rs.400 a month as old-age pension but spends half that amount to hire a tempo to collect the amount from the bank which is 8 km away. A large proportion (40 per cent) of the respondents we interviewed reported having to make multiple trips to the bank or post office to collect payment, making the inconvenience even more acute.

Tamilnadu has addressed this by making payments through banking correspondents. Most respondents were quite satisfied with this system since it enables them to receive their pension in the village itself. However, given that banking infrastructure and extension services are not uniformly developed in all states, alternatives to the current payment system need to be explored.

Old age pensioners in Chhattisgarh hold up their post office passbooks.
Picture credit: Raghav Puri.

The Aadhaar myth

Another interesting finding, especially in the light of the major push for Aadhaar across the country, related to the extent to which a unique ID can resolve the various irregularities in the NSAP. In almost all states, we found the names of dead persons in the old age pension list. However on further probing and visits to the local bank or post office we found that while money was being deposited in the account of these beneficiaries, withdrawals had not been made. Only in rare cases was the money being appropriated even after the death of the beneficiary.

One of the big claims of the proponents of Aadhaar is that a unique ID will reduce leakages by eliminating duplicate beneficiaries. In our survey, we found only one case of duplicate identity in the 4000 pension beneficiaries whose names and details we verified. Both the cases described here can be easily addressed through simple verification exercises like the one we conducted and does not require unique IDs with biometrics, where authentication rates are still questionable.

The road ahead

Overall findings from the survey are encouraging, indicating that pension reforms introduced by states are contributing positively to improving the implementation of pension schemes. The survey found that pensions are indeed reaching the people for whom the scheme is intended. 96 per cent of those on the pension lists reported having received payment. The survey data shows that a large proportion (72 per cent) of those receiving pension under the old age and widow pension schemes also get the entire pension amount.

In cases where pension beneficiaries were not receiving the full amount, an intermediary would take a certain amount as 'fee' for assisting with applying or payment. 82 per cent of the beneficiaries in our sample were illiterate, emphasising the need for some sort of facilitation support to be provided by the administration. Without this, pension beneficiaries have no choice but to resort to the much more accessible middleman.

Even though the proportion of spending on NSAP is lower than on Public Distribution System and NREGA, its implementation has been found to be more effective with lower levels of leakage and a greater incidence of benefits reaching the intended beneficiary. The soundness of the NSAP as an important component in the life cycle of entitlement programmes has been well established but there is much scope for improvement. While some states are showing the way by introducing reforms that go well beyond the mandate of the Central Government through innovations in payment systems or increasing the pension amount, laggard states need to take quick steps to make pensions more accessible and predictable.

The findings from the survey have been reflected in the demands of the Pension Parishad, a campaign for securing the right to fair pension for the elderly. Under the banner of the Pension Parishad, hundreds of pensioners from across the country gathered at a month-long sit-in at Jantar Mantar in December last year and then again at a public hearing earlier this month, demanding universalisation and an increase in the pension amount to at least Rs 2000 a month.

While the Central Government has taken cognisance by setting up a taskforce to review the NSAP, its recommendations are yet to be implemented. Public action in the meantime will continue as elderly pensioners, with a lifetime of invisible contribution to the informal economy, claim political space as holders of legitimate rights. Their demand to a more comprehensive pension entitlement must now be heard.