Aruna Roy is in Delhi, not as a member of the National Advisory Council (NAC) but as a social activist. Roy, under the banner of Pension Parishad, is spearheading a national campaign at Jantar Mantar demanding a universal pension scheme for senior citizens in India. A move that could cost the government around Rs 2 lakh crore per annum, the proposal will cover more than eight crore senior citizens. The campaign believes that the government can raise this money through various ways including widening of tax ambit and imposing a cess on industries. Roy spoke to Firstpost about the proposal and its relevance.
What brings you to Jantar Mantar?
I am here as a people’s representative. I am part of the Pension Parishad first before any other body or committee. These are people from the unorganized sector. I have worked with them in Rajasthan and other states for more than a decade now. We are talking about a mechanism where they get a uniform pension of Rs 2,000 or half of the minimum wages (whichever is more) throughout the country.
How many people are we talking about?
In absolute numbers, there were 88 million elderly (citizens above 60 years) in India in 2009. This population is expected to rise to more than 315 million by 2050.
What is the estimated cost of the project?
Rs 1, 92,000 crore per annum. This is two per cent of the Gross Domestic Product.
Do you have any suggestions for the government to raise this amount?
Why don’t we ask the money question while formulating schemes such as UID and similar programs which costs millions of rupees? What we are demanding here is much less than the government’s budget for these humungous projects. If you don’t invest money, you can’t run the economic paradigm the way you are presently, that everything has to be paid for including health and education. There is no social security. If you want to bring down everything to marketability, you cannot run the system. It is about people who have worked their entire lives constructing roads, working on various projects for the citizens of the country. They have shaped up the roads, highways, schools and hospitals in country we see today. They should not be living in misery. Let me give you an example. The government says that the root of numerous health issues in rural India is that people go to quacks and not qualified doctors. Now suppose people go to doctors, then do they have the money to afford even the basic schemes in hospitals? If a bone gets fractured, they don’t have the money to get it plastered.
What is wrong with the current schemes under which elderly get pension?
Under the Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension scheme, those above 60 get Rs 200 per month and those above 80 get Rs 500 per month as pension. This amount is too low and the scheme covers only below poverty line citizens. Only 1.8 core of the elderly population benefit from this scheme. We are demanding a program for pension irrespective of whether the person belongs to below poverty line or above poverty line.
On behalf of the pension parishad, have you met any government representative?
We will hold discussions with the Planning Commission members soon and lobby for our demands.
As a member of the NAC, have you mooted the idea to the government?
So far there is no NAC committee on the pension matter. If the Council gets the go ahead from the government on this matter, nothing like it. But our movement is not depending on the NAC.
In the last decade, we saw laws such as Right to Education, Right to Information and Right to Food getting enacted. Do you think we need a law for uniform pension program proposed by the pension parishad?
This is just the launch phase of the movement. If we feel the need of legislation for our demands, we will take that route.
What has been the government’s stand on this issue?
The government has not closed it mind on the issue. The rest we will get to know once we hold discussion with the government representatives.