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Braving the winter chill, elderly demand universal pension

The elderly have been demanding a dignified amount of monthly pension for the marginalised section of society

IANS  |  New Delhi 

Huddled together under a streak of sunlight on a nippy winter morning, a group of elderly women from Uttar Pradesh hope they will succeed in their mission -- making the government allot a dignified amount of monthly pension for the marginalised section of society.

"The government makes false promises, only to win votes. I have been here since Nov 27, leaving behind my family. I want to educate my daughter, but I cannot afford to do that. I do not have anything - no land, no house, no livelihood," 69-year-old Gulabiya, who has been part of a demonstration in Jantar Mantar since Nov 27, told IANS.

"Despite having a pension account, I do not get the money. The authorities refuse to answer my queries. They simply say we don't know," she said.

Like Gulabiya, scores of senior citizens, waste-pickers, disabled and other people from marginalised sections of society from across the country have gathered at the 18th century observatory Jantar Mantar, famous for being a protest site in Delhi.

Gathered under the umbrella of Pension Parishad - an initiative to ensure universal pension to all elderly in India - the people have been demanding action from the union government on the assurances made to them.

They have even made a failed attempt to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Around 200 in number, mostly elderly men and women, the protesters know the fight is long. But so is their determination.

They are staying in a nearby lodge, and come to Jantar Mantar at 10 a.m. and leave the protest site at 5 p.m. Under a canopy, the elderly sit throughout the day, raising slogans and waving banners.

The Pension Parishad was started in February 2012 by Magsaysay award-winning social activist Aruna Roy and trade union leader-social reformer Baba Adhav.

It has been demanding universal pension, especially for women, given their high levels of dependency for daily sustenance.

The group has been demanding Rs.2,000 as minimum monthly pension or half the minimum wage, whichever is higher.

"The present amount of Rs.200 per month is a pittance. Contributions from the states are voluntary and variable. Some states do not contribute anything. The pension amount should enable the elderly to live a life of dignity," Roy told IANS.

The demands of the Pension Parishad came from the experiences and needs of various marginalised communities, internally displaced, waste-pickers, workers under the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), disabled, sex workers, transgenders and others who live in a hand-to-mouth existence.

Wiping her tears, 70-year-old Mangi from Banda district in Uttar Pradesh said: "I do not even get widow pension. Despite having a pension card, I have received no pension for eight months. We live without food, and have no land possession. The government will have to listen to our demands."

Dhokiya, 45, who met with an accident a few years ago, said that despite being physically unfit, she was denied pension by the authorities.

"I filled various forms, but they say I do not qualify for pension. I am not in a position to work. I live in a house which is next to a sewage pipe, and is flooded when it rains. My husband earns Rs.100 per day working under NREGS. What should I do, where should I go?" Dhokiya told IANS.

"I really hope we get Rs.2,000 as pension per month as then we can at least afford to eat adequate food, buy medicines and educate our children," Dhokiya added.

On March 7, union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh had assured the agitating elderly people who assembled at Parliament Street, a few kilometres from parliament, that a revamped pension scheme would be rolled out soon.

Ramesh worked out an in-principle agreement with the Pension Parishad. But nothing has happened on the promise.

"The central government's assurance is yet to be realised. However, some states have moved towards the Pension Parishad demands for universal pension. Though the amount falls short of our demand, this has given hope to the elderly," Roy said.

She said that as general elections are approaching, political parties have to realise that the elderly are a sizeable population.

"They are beginning to realise their power to bargain for their right to a share of social security benefits and a life of dignity," Roy added.

Mangi said they are determined to stay in Delhi and continue their vigil until the government listens to their demands.

Asked what would they do if their pension demands of Rs.2,000 are considered, many of the elderly said they would buy food, medicines and educate their children.

Satnarayan Ram, a 60-year-old farmer from Uttar Pradesh, said he has come to make his voice heard.

"I am a farmer and hardly earn enough to feed myself. I live with my son, but what if he goes away one day? How will my house run?"

"We do not have enough to feed ourselves, how can we even buy medicines for ourselves. It is high time the government listens to us," he added.

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First Published: Tue, December 10 2013. 12:12 IST