Post Aadhaar enabled JAM, thousands of pensioners have been declared dead, struck off lists and denied pension. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, say Nikhil Shenoy and Vineet Bhambhu
On the morning of the 1st of July, 2016, as a national daily splashed the headline of an article showing proof of pensioners who were effectively the “living dead” of Rajasthan, a suppressed voice of anguish found a platform for being heard. Newspaper reports revealed how the Government had stopped the pensions of eight people, some of them old, some widows, and some disabled, with records classifying them as “dead”. It was also clear from the reports that these eight pensioners were most probably just the tip of the iceberg.
The eight pensioners had traveled to Delhi to hold a press conference in the hope of making the Rajasthan Government respond to their complaints. And what was their complaint? That their pensions had stopped between six to nine months ago and no one would tell them why. It was only when activists from the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) visited their homes with a list of names from Government records that the pensioners received the shocking news that they had been shown as verified but that they had officially been recorded as “dead”.
So, along with MKSS, they decided to present proof of their existence before the national media in Delhi. And it grabbed the attention of those in power, from the secretariat at Jaipur to the district headquarter. The Collector promptly came to the Panchayat Samithi on the 2nd of July despite it being a Saturday and a Government holiday. The BDO, the SDM and the entire block administrators, were taken to task, and the pensions of the eight were immediately restored. Within a week they had received their pension payments along with arrears.
With a clear shift to the “JAM” (Jan Dhan bank accounts, Aadhar authentication, and Mobile) as the mode of delivery for social sector benefits across the country, the Rajasthan government took a decision to shift pension payments from money orders delivered at home through postmen, to banks early last year. Stiff targets were set. Panchayat officials were pressed into service to coerce every single pensioner into opening bank accounts.
Reminders were sent on every money order, for the immediate ‘seeding’ of bank accounts into which pensions would be paid. This meant three separate new requirements brought together: A bank account, linked (seeded) to a Bhamashah card (the Vasundhara Raje Government’s flagship program of providing every house with one identity), and an Aadhar number. For many marginalised people and communities this was a nearly impossible requirement. Refusing to acknowledge that many had been excluded from this process, the flags of victory were unfurled by the Government. Claims were made that 10 lakh “fake” pensioners had been weeded out using the new system of banking, saving the Government approximately 500 crore rupees, annually.
What started out as a single cold figure of 10 lakhs became more defined during the Jawaabdehi Dharna held from the 1st to 22nd of June in Jaipur. During the pension Jan Sunwai, pensioners flocked to the mike to tell their tales of “stopped” pensions for no comprehensible reason, and the misery that it was bringing upon their homes. Interactions with Government officials provided some clarity with numbers emerging for each district, along with the reason stated for the cancellations. Three lakh pensioners were declared dead, another 1.7 lakhs stated to have been receiving duplicate pensions. The rest were stopped under a catch all arbitrary classification called “other”.
The MKSS took records of some of the blocks to verify. The results of the very first re-verification carried out at Kushalpura Panchayat in Bhim block were distressing. Out of the 125 cancelled pensioners, 44 were declared dead and the rest were declared to be receiving duplicate pensions. A simple reading out of the names at an NREGA site revealed a different story with some of the “dead” working at the same work site. A door to door re-verification revealed that while the Government had arbitrarily stopped pensions of 21 pensioners, classifying them as “dead”, they were very much alive and found within the jurisdiction of a single Panchayat alone! Some pensioners, allegedly receiving duplicate pensions from the Government, had stopped receiving pensions altogether while some others shown as receiving “duplicate” pensions in Government records had in fact passed away. Huge discrepancies in the Government data were exposed during this survey. This information, however, had not been communicated to the pensioners, nor was the actual reason of cancelling pensions available in public domain. Often, the website displayed one set of reasons for stopping pensions, while the government/official records had different reasons.
Dhaku Devi,is a 90-year-old pensioner living alone in a kachha house without electricity. Dallu Devi, another 75-year-old pensioner stays with her disabled son. Both became victims of the Government’s “inclusive, and efficient JAM” process. Along with pensions, because of the new system requiring them to travel to the bank or ration shop, with recognisable biometrics, they have been excluded from their quota of subsidised food grain, as well as every other social security entitlement run by the Government. On 27th June, the Bhim block of Rajsamand district had 3773 cancelled pensioners. With the Government receiving flak from the media, who were reporting on the issue incessantly from various districts, but especially from within the Bhim block, orders for a re-verification into every case of cancelled pensioners in the block took place. The results were worse than what was feared. By 23rd July, over 1300 wrongly cancelled pensioners had been officially restored, with the re-verification drive still in progress. One can only imagine how many of the rest of the 10 lakh pensioners are waiting, even today, to be re-verified and have their pensions restored.
But can all the 10 lakh pensioners reach Delhi to get a hearing? Can the ten thousand complainants who registered their grievances during the Jawaabdehi Yatra reach Delhi or Jaipur to get their complaints acted upon? Can a common man suffering a break in the service delivery, get the Government to act upon it? How much can one rely on a re-verification drive by the same people who caused so much distress and pain in the first place?
These unanswered questions hang like a black shroud over the delivery framework of social sector entitlements. They highlight the need for a strong accountability bill being demanded by the Soochna evam Rozgar Adhikar Abhiyan (See A Game changing Bill That No One is Talking about Yet, March 15-30, 2016, Policy Pulse), where any break in service delivery, or any complaint against the authority will not only be heard and disposed off within a certain period of time but a strong and independent structure – with the power to impose penalties on the errant officer as well as to award compensation for the victim – will be set up. The bill also envisages a Janata Information System (JIS) for proactive disclosure of all information in the public domain, in a form that could be understood by the beneficiaries.
As Shankar Singh of Theekarwas Panchayat whose name is mentioned among the dead pensioners demanded in a public hearing on the 23rd of July, “I want to know who marked me as dead and caused me all this suffering. I want action to be taken against him. Not only do we want our pensions to be restored with arrears, but we also want compensation. During the 10 months I did not get pensions, I borrowed Rs 10,000 for which I will have to pay interest. The compensation should include the interest on the arrears amount.” It is only when the marginalised citizen can hold power to account, that we can make sure that Government does not get away with the neglect of people and the murder of entitlements.
-- Nikhil Shenoy and Vineet Bhambhu are activists with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Rajasthan