Maharashtra’s Women Fight for Universal Old Age Pension in India

Maya Kadhale, an abandoned wife now in her forties, is presently supporting herself by working in several homes as a domestic helper. As she washes piles of clothes every day, rinses dishes by the hour, she is haunted by one thought: How long can she keep this up? Kadhale suffers from rheumatism in both her hands, possibly exacerbated by the work she does that involves long periods of contact with cold water. She knows that in a few years’ time, her fingers will be too crippled to perform tasks of this kind.

Consider also Kamala Tarachand, who took up rag picking to feed herself and her husband, now too old to earn a living. One day a speeding motorcycle left her with injuries that required two surgeries. The encounter on the mean street meant that this 62-year-old woman could now no longer venture out and try and earn a little something.

The moment of that stove burst is written on the scars of Kaushalya Domate’s face. She was cooking at that time. The incident left one hand and parts of her body badly injured, and she finds herself falling ill very often these days. “I work for two days and fall ill for four. That is the story of my life. Family members support me,” says the 54-year-old woman who doesn’t have an independent source of income.

All these three women from Maharashtra were part of a group of the 2,000 working poor from nine states who had gathered in the Capital on an excruciatingly hot day to take part in a campaign for a universal old age pension launched by social activists like Aruna Roy, Jean Dreze and Baba Adhav.

India is often regarded as one of the youngest nations in the world with 33 per cent of its population below 15. The focus of government’s policy and social mobilisation has invariably been on the younger and “productive” sections of society. In contrast, the elderly living quietly in its midst hardly figure on the policy radar.

Comments Nikhil Dey, of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), one of the organisations spearheading the universal pension campaign, “We know that 10 crore (100 million) – or a little more than eight per cent of our population – is above 60 years. We also know that by 2030, over a fifth of the population will be in that category. Yet, India has one of the worst support systems for the elderly in the world. Poorer countries like Kenya and Nepal have done better.”

The campaign’s central demand is a universal and non-contributory old age pension system of not less than 50 per cent of the minimum wage, or Rs 2,000 – whichever is higher. “There are serious flaws in the present targeted approach of giving only those below the poverty line support. Presently, more than 50 per cent of India’s elderly poor don’t receive any support. This is why we are arguing for a universal, non-target based approach,” explains Dey.

He makes it clear the demand for a universal pension is not as a dole but a right, given that the beneficiaries are people who had worked hard throughout their adult lives and contributed to the country’s GDP. “The Rs 2,000 (US$1=Rs 55) for those over 55 that is being demanded is a small amount, if anything, but it becomes something to build on. Other entitlements, like a contributory pension, can be added to it. This way, the old can also be part of the economy, rather than be left to lie in one corner in utter neglect,” says Dey.

The joint family – the traditional support base for those too old to earn a living – is getting rapidly transformed under the impact of multiple forces. There is, for instance, the phenomenon of migration. Falling incomes from agriculture are forcing the able-bodied in rural India to leave their villages in search of work, with old relatives left behind to fend for themselves. In urban areas, space is such a huge constraint that the elderly often find themselves literally pushed out of the family home.

The State has done very little to address the concern. Under the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme, meagre amounts are made available – in some states they are as pathetic Rs 200 a month, a sum rural development minister Jairam Ramesh admitted was an insult to a person’s dignity. What’s more, it is estimated to reach only one-in-five elderly persons. A law passed in 2007 – The Maintenance & Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007 – that provides penalties for children who neglect their parents has largely proved ineffective. It comes as no surprise, then, that the elderly make up the largest proportion of people who die from starvation related causes. A Study on Destitution and Hunger in the states of Rajasthan, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh by the Centre for Equity Studies found that many impoverished old people give up on regular meals. This is a reality that 55-year-old Surekha, one of the women who took part in the sit-in for a universal pension campaign, is familiar with. “Ever since my husband passed away eight years ago, I have had no regular source of income. People help with some assistance now and then. But when I find myself without any money, I don’t eat,” she says.

Significantly, recent data reveals that women constitute a growing proportion of the country’s elderly population. According to evidence from the Registrar General of India’s office, based on data from the Sample Registration System 2010, the percentage of women in the 60-plus age group was higher than that of their male counterparts in 17 of India’s 20 largest states. Some states like Kerala and Maharashtra reported differences as significant as 12.6 and 10 per cent, respectively.

What is of particular concern is that the majority of elderly women in the country are tragically ill-equipped to cope with the challenges of growing old. When compared to elderly men, they are less likely to be literate, less likely to have any fixed or moveable assets in their names and less likely to have once held a regular job and built up some savings. A research paper put out by the Central Statistics Office, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, cites data from the NSSO (2007-2008) to show that 50 per cent of men aged 60 and above were literate, as compared to 20 per cent of women. It also notes that more older men than older women have a living spouse. For instance, in the age group of 60 to 64, 88 per cent of men were married, as against 58 per cent women (40 per cent of whom were widows) – an obvious outcome of the fact that men tend to marry women younger to them.

Dey agrees that any serious discussion on a support regime for the elderly must take the gender factor into consideration. “We have seen an incredible number of elderly and widowed women toiling under the sun on government job sites. Under the present system, a widow with a son of 18 and above is no longer entitled to get even the small government pension for widows. But tell me, at 18, which boy is able to earn? And what guarantee is there that he would support his mother?”

A universal old age pension then is clearly an idea whose time has come. Organisations like the MKSS are now planning to mainstream it. Says Dey, “Remember, pensions concern a group that is politically active and which votes. This is why every political party knows it cannot afford to ignore it. We, on our part, plan to keep up the pressure and make the demand for a universal old age pension a political one.”

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