Hyderabad: When she has nothing to eat at home, Punamma, a 70-year-old widow in Telangana, often sleeps on an empty stomach. Eligible for the state government’s widow and old-age pension, Punamma told ThePrint she hadn’t received a rupee despite “frequent applications” under the KCR administration’s ‘Aasara’ scheme.
On Monday, Punamma, a resident of the Muthyalamma Gudem village, travelled two hours to reach Hyderabad, where she sat at the city’s landmark protest site Dharna Chowk to agitate for her pension.
She said her husband, who used to make earthen pots for a living, died two years ago, leaving her with no source of income. Her only son does not stay with her and sends her a meagre Rs 1,000 “once in five months or so”. She mostly survives on groceries she gets through the state rations scheme but has no money in hand. She often thinks of resorting to begging, she said.
“As soon as my husband died, I applied for the pension. I also applied for the senior citizen’s pension four years ago — but not once did I get anything,” she added. “I am 70, my sight is weak and I cannot go to work at this age. My medicines cost me Rs 600 a month and often I do not have anything to eat.”
Not far from Punnamma sits 72-year-old Jinna Ramulamma from Rusthapur village (Yadadri district). At her age, she has been forced to take up 100 days of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, to make ends meet.
She said her sons abandoned her after her husband’s death three years ago. In mid-2019, she applied for the government pension as a widow and is still waiting for her money.
“I often beg for food or money. How else will I buy my medicines? My hands and legs pain and it’s getting difficult for me to go to work,” she said.
The two elderly widows are among an estimated 3,15,262 people who are enrolled as beneficiary pensioners under Aasara but haven’t received their dues from the state, according to data obtained last month through a Right to Information (RTI) application filed by activists from the Rythu Swarajya Vedika (RSV), an independent farmers’ organisation.
The ‘Aasara’ — which literally translates to “support” — pension scheme was launched in 2014 by the maiden government of the then newly carved-out state of Telangana, led by Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao. The scheme is meant for senior citizens, widows, persons with disabilities, people in the BPL (below poverty line) category, weavers, toddy-tappers, beedi workers, single women, and HIV and filarial patients.
The Telangana government, in the RTI reply, stated that as of February 2022, it was providing pension to 36.42 lakh beneficiaries.
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‘Waiting for election time’
Telangana has been among the top states paying high pension amounts (Rs 2,016 per month on average), after CM Rao, during the 2018 assembly polls, promised that he would hike the aid under Aasara if voted back to power.
When he won, widow pension was increased to Rs 2,016 from the earlier Rs 1,000 and pension for disabled persons was increased to Rs 3,016 from the earlier Rs 1,500.
The CM had also promised to reduce the eligibility age for old-age pension to 57 years from the earlier threshold of 65 years — which came into effect in August last year.
According to RSV activist Kondal Reddy, the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), a Telangana government department, received around 7,80,000 applications from across the state when the age limit was slashed to 57 years. “All the applications are eligible and have just been kept pending at the mandal revenue offices,” Reddy told ThePrint. This number is apart from the 3,15,262 eligible applicants awaiting their pension, Reddy said, citing data received from SERP officials.
For any pension application to be approved, it has to undergo a verification process at the gram panchayat and mandal level.
Talking about the unpaid beneficiaries, former IAS officer Gopal Rao, who was present at Monday’s agitation, alleged: “Some applications have been pending for more than three years — this shows how well the Telangana government is implementing the Aasara scheme. It appears that these pensions will only be cleared during elections. Should these lakhs of people wait till the next elections?”
Sandeep Kumar Sultaniya, CEO of SERP who looks after pensions, had last year said in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) that Telangana was implementing the Aasara pension scheme in a transparent manner.
The PIL had asked the court to direct the government to implement the pension scheme in a transparent manner, and create a web portal for applicants to check their status, among other things.
“The budget allotted for the Aasara scheme for 2021-22 was Rs 11,508 crore, for 39.26 lakh pensioners,” he said in a counter filed in court in 2021.
Sultaniya did not respond to ThePrint’s calls or text messages Tuesday raising queries on the subject.
Reddy said: “We checked the pension application status in states such as Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh — nowhere did we see pension amounts not paid for more than three months.”
“Unpaid pensions for two years or so means that Telangana owes these beneficiaries Rs 50,000 or more — will they be paid?” Reddy asked.
ThePrint reached Telangana Rural Development Minister Errabelli Dayakar Rao with queries — texted to his team — on the pending pensions, but had not received any response till the time of publishing.
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The fallout of Covid
Widows make up about half — 1,59,452 — of the 3,15,262 pensioners awaiting their money from the Telangana government, according to the RTI reply.
A year ago, in February 2021, the number of widows waiting for their pending pension was around 82,485, data from the reply to a similar RTI application filed last year said.
Social worker and RSV volunteer SreeHarsha pointed to the huge number of deaths in the second Covid wave last year as a possible cause for this surge between the two years.
“It appears that many women might have lost their husbands to Covid. A sample survey that we conducted found that many people had not been given their pensions for at least two years. Our survey (of 1,000 sample size) revealed that the majority of such people comprised women,” SreeHarsha said.
Among the many people who lost their husbands — often the lone financial support — to Covid was 32-year-old Lalitha from Devarakonda Mandal in the state’s Nalgonda district. Her husband, an auto driver, passed away last year and she is now left with no source of income and three daughters to take care of.
“The pension amount of Rs 2,016 every month will go a long way for us,” she said.
United in misery
ThePrint Monday met brothers Dandi Illiah and Dandi Mallayya, aged 72 and 70 years, respectively, from Warangal district. At their advanced age, both are forced to work in the fields as security guards — standing for hours to make sure no animal eats the crops. Both had applied for the government pension five years ago, but claim they have not got anything.
“We don’t have any land and we work for someone. We get paid around Rs 1,500 for this job,” Illiah said.
Also at the protest site was Devayya, 60, from Hyderabad, who met with an accident in early 2020 that left his legs dysfunctional. Like the others, he applied for pension for disabled persons soon after his accident, but has not received it even once. Abandoned by his kids, Devayya depends on his wife Gangamma to take him to the local office to check his pension status.
He told ThePrint that had he got his pension money on time, his wife would not have to work as a domestic help at the age of 59.
SreeHarsha rued the plight of such pensioners. “Social security is their right, not the government’s charity,” he pointed out.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)
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