Distress migration has many impacts – and not just on the lives of the able-bodied who are often forced to live and work in sub-human conditions. Those they leave behind, many of them too old to earn a living or even care for themselves, are now bereft of the support of younger family members in their years of infirmity.
Hunger stalked the old much more than any other section of the community because children are accorded priority in the distribution of scarce food within the household. This is especially during the starvation months of August, September, October, when household stocks of food grain run out and the new harvest has not come in. Among this already vulnerable group, it is the plight of deserted women and widows that is particularly grave.
As local activist Kanaklata Murmu put it, “Old people of the village particularly have a very bad deal. If their families take care of them it is well and good, but many poor families – under various burdens of their own – just don’t bother. You will find very old people bearing firewood on their heads or dragging a pitcher of water for their daily needs.”
In 2004, after the initiative with ActionAid India was mainstreamed, Sevabrata looked at whether the extremely modest sum of Rs 100 under the National Old Age Pension Scheme (NOAPS) even reached the intended beneficiaries who were, according to Supreme Court orders, supposed to get it on or before the 7th of every month. It was then found that there had been no attempt, either by the administration, local politicians or Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), to identify beneficiaries.
There was also no general awareness about the existence of such a pension and no effort had been made to circulate information about it in the local media or on public boards. The other problem lay in the design of the scheme: there was only a limited quota for such beneficiaries, who also had to hold BPL cards. It was only after those in the list had passed away could new names be included. This meant that many remained out of the list, sometimes up to the time of their own death – in other words, they did not benefit from the existence of the NOAPS.
Among the recommendations suggested was that the list of beneficiaries should be carefully drawn by the gram sabha after making proper inquiries with village development committees allowed to inspect the cases and recommend applicants if necessary. There was also a general observation that the quota system needed to be reformed. Over the years the Banchita Jana Jagarana Adhikar Samity (BJJAS), a local partner of ActionAid India, realising the links between old age and conditions of hunger, took up the non-payment of pensions as one of its important concerns.
In 2008, for instance, the issue of some elderly persons from Hensla village in Arsha Block, who had not received their old age pensions for the five months between April 2007 and September 2008, was taken up. Many complaints were made to the BDO, but they fell on deaf ears. That was when the RTI route was decided upon. Finally, on the directions of the Information Commission, the BDO of Arsha arranged a hearing which lasted well into the night, after which the panchayat secretary gave a written undertaking that the pension of five months would be paid in installments.
In August 2008, 269 beneficiaries were paid Rs 500 each. Over the next few months their entire outstandings were cleared because of the pressure applied on the authorities. It was to circumvent such problems that today, these payments go directly into personal bank accounts.
Over the years, thanks to BJJAS activism, the number of beneficiaries of pensions has grown considerably. While in 2007 only 55 women in the project area received their entitlement under the Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme, by 2012, this figure had risen to 1269. Similarly, those who benefited from the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme was 547 in 2007 but rose to 1929 by 2012. What was also interesting to note was that attempts were made to bring in the elderly into MGNREGA projects.
Revealed Abola Chalok, of Baghmundi village, who is around 70, with great pride, “Yes, I too could earn some money like others in my village by providing drinking water to the workers on an MGNREGA site near my village.”
The campaign for old age pensions had touched a chord and it has been decided to keep it as a core activity for the BJJAS in the future too.