As I write this column, a copy of the 2014 HelpAge India report on the State of Elderly in India is on my desk. It's depressing reading; it forecasts that between 2006 and 2050, India's population will grow by 40 per cent, while that of its aged (60 and above) will increase by 270 per cent. The elderly who live in poverty have compounded problems - many are forced to work to survive while the number of aged destitutes is rising alarmingly. The government's Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme allows all of Rs 200 per month to those above 60 living below the poverty line, while the Delhi government gives Rs 1,500 as widow pension. But sadly, even this isn't accessible to all, and the system of pension disbursal is flawed. The recent story of Delhi-based Sumitra Devi illustrates much of what ails our elderly population, as well as offers hope for a better future.
Seventy-three-year old Sumitra Devi lives alone in Lal Gumbad Camp, and used to survive in abject poverty on her widow pension (Rs 1,000 per month at the time). In April 2012 she stopped receiving it - that too without any intimation from the department concerned. Repeated visits to the post office (where she had an account in which the pension was deposited) and to the Department of Women and Child Development yielded vague answers. Soon, her landlord asked her to vacate the room she was staying in. She took shelter in the courtyard of a nearby temple and lived off food her neighbours could spare. Eventually, she learnt from a friendly person at the post office that the government rules regarding pensions had changed. The pension could no longer be deposited in her post office account, but in an account in a nationalised bank. The old lady somehow managed to open the required account in 2012, but her pension still didn't get re-activated.
Finally, she sought the help of Satark Nagrik Sangathan, a citizens group working in the area. With its help in June 2013, she filed an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act seeking information on the status of her pension. Upon receiving incomplete information, she filed a second appeal before the Central Information Commission (CIC) some months later. In the hearing, the CIC ordered the women and child development department to pay her Rs 43,500 as the amount of pension due to her for 29 months and a compensation of Rs 5,000 a month for stopping her pension without notice, a violation of the RTI Act and her human rights.
Instead, the department concerned said that it had indeed informed the general public about the changed rules - through newspaper advertisements and the internet. "It's farcical," says Anjali Bhardwaj of Satark Nagrik Sangathan. "How can the department expect people as old and as helpless as Sumitra Devi to access pension rules through newspapers, let alone the internet?" In a landmark judgment on Sumitra Devi's case on March 31, March 2015, the CIC imposed a maximum penalty of Rs 25,000 and disciplinary action against the government official responsible for arbitrarily discontinuing Sumitra's old age pension without informing her, chiding her (the official) for lack of compassion. Further, it has also directed that Sumitra Devi's dues be cleared with interest without any further ado. As a result, after three long years, the septuagenarian will finally receive her pension with arrears as well as the compensation due to her.
It's a victory for Sumitra Devi as well as the RTI movement in India, but it's a victory doomed to remain pyrrhic unless we are able to replace some of the bureaucratic red tape with plain and simple kindness and compassion, especially when dealing with the Sumitra Devis of this world.