In July 2020, shortly after the Covid-19 lockdown was lifted, 62-year-old Dukhan Singh broke his leg when a wall collapsed on him in the village of Ukamar in the Latehar district of Jharkhand. As a small farmer with a meager income, he had to borrow more than 10,000 rupees from relatives to pay his hospital bills. He planned to use the rupee 1,000 pension he could get under a central government welfare scheme for the elderly to settle his debts.
But for five months after his fracture, Dukhan Singh received no pension benefit.
“I went to the post office several times, but they kept saying my pension hadn’t come,” said Singh, a widower from an Adivasi community. “I didn’t even have enough money for rations, so I had to borrow more to survive.”
Singh is not alone. Since July 2020, amid a pandemic that has disrupted livelihoods across the country, the Jharkhand government has stopped distributing pensions to nearly 10 lakh eligible widows, seniors and disabled beneficiaries in counties across the state.
The reason, according to government officials, was the lack of money in Jharkhand’s coffers due to the central government’s delays in transferring funds to the state. In one district, an official claimed that part of its pension funds needed to be diverted for payments under the Modi government’s Covid-19 aid package.
Dukhan Singh did not receive a pension five months after the Covid-19 lockdown. Photo: Kanhai Singh
How did pensions disappear?
Of the 1,000 rupees paid monthly as a pension for the elderly, disabled and widows, 200 rupees come from the central government, while the remaining 800 rupees are the contribution of the state government.
After the nationwide lockdown was imposed in March 2020 to curb the spread of Covid-19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government announced an aid package for the poor that would send 1,000 rupees directly in two installments to three million elderly widows and people involved with disabilities. This money should be paid in addition to their regular pensions and distributed between April and June 2020 under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana.
However, an official from Jharkhand’s Latehar District Collector alleged that the state government did not receive this allocation from the center until later this year. The official responsible for the distribution of pensions said that this had forced the state government to use its existing pension funds for the Covid aid payments under PMGKY.
“Since the central government’s funds for aid from Covid did not come in time, we were asked to use the center’s share of the pension fund to give people 1,000 rupees over two months,” said the official, who did not want to be named . “After that, we could no longer pay people their regular pensions from just the state’s share of the money. That is not allowed under the rules. That is why people’s pensions are bogged down. “
Villagers from West Singhbhum District attended a public hearing in Chaibasa on February 16 to voice their complaints about pensions. Courtesy photo: Right to Food Campaign
However, in the West Singhbhum district, collector Rajkamal Arava Scroll.in announced that their pension funds were not being used to help Covid. “We made the Covid aid payments from the funds earmarked for disaster management,” said Arava. “But pensions have been delayed because we didn’t get the funds from the state government in time, probably because of delays in getting the centre’s stake.”
Officials from Jharkhand’s Department of Women, Child Development and Social Security did not answer calls or e-mail requests sent on February 26. Scroll.in also sent email inquiries to the Union Department of Social Justice on Feb.25, but received no response.
The Latehar official claimed this was the first time the state had experienced such a delay in paying pensions. “I don’t know when the state government finally got funding from the center, but at the district level we got the money on January 22nd,” he said. “On January 29th, we finished processing and started withdrawals.”
Two weeks later, from September 2020 to January 2021, Singh finally received Rs 5,000 as retirement benefit for five months.
Other counties in Jharkhand are now following suit, and pensions are gradually being distributed to registered beneficiaries who have not been paid for several months.
Begging for money to survive
The delay in pensions by half a year had a crippling effect on local beneficiaries in need of protection. It has led to hunger, debt and hardship.
Seventy-year-old Devnandad Jadhav, for example, claims that he has to beg for money during the months when he has not received a pension. “My son and I barely earn a few thousand rupees a season working on our small farm. Even 1,000 rupees as a pension was never enough for Ration-Pani [food and water]”Said Jadhav, who lives in Latehar’s Ledgain village.” But at least it would have been a help if we had received the pension. “
Jadhav suffers from high blood pressure and says he often collapses while walking but didn’t have money to buy medication in the second half of 2020. “Now I can’t even remember how much money I borrowed from people, but I have to pay it back. ” he said.
Devnandan Jadhav had to beg for money when he did not receive a pension for months. Photo: Kanhai Singh
Jadhav, Dukhan Singh and every other retiree Scroll.in spoke to claimed they did not receive the Covid relief payment of 1,000 rupees, allegedly delaying their pensions. “I heard that some women in the village received this money, but nobody in my family received it,” said Jadhav.
According to development economist Jean Dreze, these retirement pensions and the lack of financial support for needy populations in Jharkhand warrant investigation. “What is shocking is not only that pensions were maintained when poor people needed them most, but also that no one paid any attention for months,” said Dreze. “Someone should be held accountable. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen. “
A big gap
In order to hold the state government accountable for the lack of pensions, activists from the Campaign for the Right to Food and other social justice groups in the country have been organizing protests and public hearings at district and block level for a month.
In Latehar, for example, dozens of elderly people, widows and people with disabilities protested in front of the Barwadih block office on January 29th.
In addition to the beneficiaries listed on the government’s official pension lists, these events have attracted a large number of other people who are eligible for pensions but have been excluded from various pension schemes.
For example, in West Singhbhum District, Campaigners for the Right to Food compared 2011 census data on the population of the elderly, widows and people with disabilities with the official number of pensioners on the district administration’s list. “We found a huge 64% gap in the numbers,” said Siraj Dutta, a member of the Right to Food Campaign. “Only 36% of the elderly, widows and disabled people in West Singhbhum actually receive pensions and most others in need do not.”
The gap may be similar in other counties in the state, according to Dutta.
Among those who were left out is Jitan Ram, a 65-year-old landless Dalit from Latehar’s village of Ledgain who has a leg shape that makes him unable to walk properly. The only job he could find in the village is “dekh-rekh” – he stands on people’s farms like a human scarecrow to ward off birds and animals. “I was never paid to do this job – farmers only give me food and clothes,” said Ram. His only son, a migrant worker in Kerala, has been unable to send money to his parents since the pandemic began.
Ram has repeatedly applied for a disability pension over the past seven years but is always denied. “My medical certificate says I am 30% disabled and the district office says I need 40% to be eligible for Viklang [disability] Pension, ”said Ram, whose pension application was also denied for two years before it was finally accepted in January. However, she has not yet received a pension.
“Rs 1,000 a month isn’t much these days, but it’s better than nothing,” said Ram. “It is very difficult to rely on others for food and money.”
Jitan Ram cannot walk properly but is not eligible for a disability pension. Photo: Kanhai Singh
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