While politicians may have a reputation for breaking promises, a 25-year-old OBC ward member in Odisha’s Bolangir is purposefully sticking to hers for four years despite the odds.
In 2012, Manju Kharsel promised her voters — over 200 people in Barabandha village who elected her as their ward member — that she will ensure old-age and widow pension for those eligible if she won. For over four years after being elected the lowest functionary in the panchayat raj system, she, along with her husband Mandar Kharsel, wrote countless letters and made several appeals to all officials concerned to seek pension for 47 old, widowed or differently-able people of Ward No 9. In November 2015, when all prayers failed, Manju decided to give Rs 100 per month pension to 20 widows and differently-abled people of her ward, a community of 150 families, from her own pocket. The state and central government pension is Rs 300 per month.
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“I was elected after promising my people that my first priority will be getting old-age pension and widow pension for them. I could not bear to see their helpless faces as they sat outside my house every other day. It was difficult for me to sleep peacefully at night. So, I and my husband decided to pay from our own pocket,” said Manju.
“I must have applied four times in the last 4 years for widow pension. I had lost all hope….Thanks to Manju, I am at least getting something,” said Sumitra Pradhan, an OBC who lives with her two unmarried daughters. Purnami Nayak, a widow who stays alone after her children migrated for work, said: “She is our MP, MLA and Sarpanch. Neither the MP nor the MLA (Kantabanji MLA Ayub Khan) ever visited our village after winning .”
What makes Manju’s credible commitment to her electorate even more remarkable is the condition of her own family. The Kharsel couple lives in a kutcha house with their 9-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. The husband and wife work as daily labourers and collect forest produce to make ends meet. Mandar reportedly mortgaged half-acre of his land with his younger brother to raise funds for paying the pension.
“It’s very difficult to go on like this. But, if needed, I will beg to pay pension to my people…I may not contest the panchayat election in 2017, but I don’t want to be called a liar. That would hurt more than living in poverty,” said Manju.
While over 1.66 lakh people in Bolangir get national (Indira Gandhi old age/widow/disability) and state (Madhu Babu old age/widow/AIDS petients) pension, officials admit there may be more than 30,000 eligible beneficiaries outside the net.
Claiming that they have exhausted all their “targets”, Bolangir’s Social Security Officer Khirod Tripathy said: “Unless someone, who is getting such a pension, dies and a vacancy is created, we can’t give any new pension.” But undeterred by the administration’s position, the Kharsel couple remain determined to keep their word.
“What she has done is a slap on the government’s face. If the CM has any shame left, he should immediately ask the district collector to provide pension to all eligible people in the area. Is the pension a target-oriented programme?” said Balgopal Mishra, former MP of Bolangir.