Leader of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan and RTI activist, Smt. Aruna Roy on Friday addressed a press conference that raised a demand for universal pension rights for the elderly.
The press conference was organised by the Pension Parishad which has planned an agitation from the 7th to the 11th of May at Jantar Mantar.
In her opening remarks, Smt. Aruna Roy said that “There has been a large debate about poverty and about the disenfranchised. Longevity has increased, lives are longer but the bodies of the old are unable to cope with the hard physical work that is required to sustain them. Farm labourers, waste pickers and domestic workers all suffer from the same ailments that the elderly middle classes face. Nuclear families are becoming common even in rural areas and the elderly are unable to manage. It is the obligation of the state to provide pensions to people who are no longer able to work. There are strong and progressive international precedents in lower and middle income countries in respect of pension.”
The agitation will take place in Delhi from 7 to 11 May 2012. Three thousand working poor from 20 states of India will participate in the dharna at Jantar Mantar. The dharna will focus on the problems of aging workers who will be able to live out their lives with dignity if the government accepts the demand for universal pension.
The other members who addressed the press included Veteran leader of unorganised workers in Maharashtra, Dr Baba Adhav, who along with Aruna Roy is the co- convenor of the Pension Parishad; Prof Prabhat Patnaik, former member of the Kerala State Planning Board and member of the UN Commission; Prof Ravi Srivastava, former member of the National Commission on Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector; Annie Raja, Secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women and SubhashLomte of the Maharashtra Labour Union.
Dr Adhav spoke about the plight of unorganised workers who wait in vain for the implementation of the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act. “The Act provides for pensions to unorganised workers and since they constitute 93% of the workforce, we are arguing for universalization of pension” he said.
Prof. Prabhat Patnaik said that “the demand for pensions is a global demand. The demand is not linked to per capita incomes. The demand is for an absolute amount. About 8 crores of people will have to be covered. It is not a big demand. GDP is growing at 8%.” He ended with “The state of civilisation must be judged by the way it treats its elderly.”
Annie Raja spoke about how the elderly were considered a burden and therefore abandoned under bridges and at railway stations. She said that “pension amount given by the Delhi government was better than many other states, but the elaborate procedure and the delays eventually exclude the most needy.”
Pension for the aging working poor is not a freebie. It is a sign of gratitude towards those in their twilight years. The working poor were not treated fairly during their working years. They did not get regular work, and were not entitled to minimum wages and they did not get any employment benefits. Pension is a right that the aging working poor have earned by virtue of having given the best years of their lives to contribute to the economy. They have grown food for the country’s population, built houses and highways, cleaned streets, collected materials for recycling, cooked food and looked after households, and assembled electronic goods. They were able to feed and clothe themselves and their families because they worked. Society must provide for them when they are no longer able to work.
Government employees enjoy pension benefits. Even elected representatives enjoy pension benefits. The most vulnerable sections of society, the working poor do not. Waste pickers, headloaders, domestic workers and many other unorganised workers assembled at a Pension Parishad in Pune on 25th February to demand the right to care and protection in old age, in the form of pension. The demand for universal pension was raised at that Convention. The demand resonated in several states among the working poor to coalesce into a 5 day dharna demanding universal pension.
It is not as if the problem of pensions is only that of the poor. Thousands of government and private sector employees have grievances about their pensions or provident funds not being paid to them or being so delayed that it is almost worthless. The problem is therefore not only of the working poor but of the aging. The elderly are among the most vulnerable in society and deserve to live out their lives with dignity.
Almost every Indian bends down to seek the blessings of the elders at different points in their lives. Indians pride themselves on their respect for the elderly. It is time for that respect to be translated into something more tangible in the form of pension. The elderly need food, health care, clothes, medicines and the Government can help the aging pay for them through universal pensions.