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Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Beyond words and posthumous tributes, the battle to get a widows pension

#GenderAnd: Do state governments fulfill their promise of ex gratia compensation to families of deceased soldiers?

Updated: February 20, 2018 7:27:34 pm

Ashwini Satre’s husband, Rifleman Dattatray of the Assam Rifles died in a landmine blast while on active duty in Arunachal Pradesh in February 2015. The mandated monthly pension his wife was supposed to start receiving shortly after his death, usually three months, started three years later on January 31, 2018. “I went from one office to another,” Ashwini says. “I met the Chief Minister, I visited the Mantralaya. They kept telling me the papers are not right.”

The file was caught in clerical red tape.  Initially, when Dattatray entered the force, his name was written as “Datta Roy”. After his death, the Sainik Board made spelling errors in Ashwini’s details as spouse. Finally, when the papers were sent to Delhi they wrote Dattaray was in the CRPF insead of Assam Rifles. “There was no one to help or guide me,” Ashwini adds when asked why she approached the Chief Minister’s office instead of the Sainik Board, the Home Ministry (under which Assam Rifles comes) or Dattaray’s unit.

Ashwini Satre’s husband Rifleman Dattatray of the Assam Rifles died in a landmine blast in February 2015. (Image courtesy: Aswhini Satre)

Ashwini, who resides in  Thane district’s Kalwa, says she must have spent over a Rs 1 lakh and approached everyone she could think of over three years to get the pension started. This included a face-off with BJP spokesperson Atul Bhatkalkar, her co-panellist on a Marathi news channel debate in May last year where she spoke about government apathy in delaying her husbands’ pension. “Bhatkalkar promised to look into it immediately on live TV,” she says. “He vanished after that.”

Ashwini did receive Rs 5 lakh compensation from the Maharashtra government after her husband died. “How long can you survive on that?” she asks. “I have two kids aged 8 and 6. I cannot take up a job because they are still young. I am now entirely dependent on the Rs 25,000 pension that I get. Even if the school fees is taken care of, that would be a huge help.”

The irony is that Ashwini is eligible for an educational concession/allowance with a cap of Rs 10,000 per family. She remains unaware of this provision of the 7th Pay Commission. It was earlier applicable only to the “killed in action” cases in the  defence services, but was extended to the Assam Rifles and other paramilitary forces after the 7th Pay Commission.

Ravindra Pathak, a member of the Veterans Pension Group who handles several cases related to widow pensions, says delays are a norm. At the heart of the matter is the need for counselling for wives and family members after the husband dies. “It is simply not happening,” he says, adding, “there are a lot of documents a widow has to submit. The bureaucratic procedures delay facilities. It is particularly difficult for her to sustain during the period in-between.”

Former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had set up an expert committee to “review service and pension matters, including potential disputes”. The committee submitted a 506-page report of suggestions in November 2015 and despite acceptance of most of the recommendations, implementation letters are yet to be issued.

The news of a death at the border on account of ceasefire violations or cross border firing is often followed by announcements of ex gratia compensation from governments for wives and families of the deceased soldier. Maharashtra is no different. In December 2017, Sambhaji Nilangekar, minister for Ex Servicemen Welfare announced in the winter session of the Assembly that a martyred jawan’s family would get 25 lakh rupees as compensation from the state government within 24 hours of the martyrdom. “It has not been happening,” says Dilip Jaiswal, member of the ex-sainik welfare board in Nagpur. “A jawan from Bhandara died on the border on 23 December, 2017, but his family has received only Rs 40,000 till date,” he says, a fact indianexpress.com independently verified.

Jyotsna Garge, president of the women’s wing of ex servicemen of Maharashtra admits the state government is not doing enough for widows and families of deceased soldier. (Image courtesy: Parth MN)

In a similar case, Sharmila Tupare was promised Rs 15 lakh as compensation after her husband Lance Naik Rajendra was killed in cross-border firing in the Poonch sector in November 2016. “Minister Chandrakant Patil declared the compensation amount,” she says. “I was called to Nagpur, and they gave me a cheque of Rs 8 lakh. I have still not received the remaining Rs 7 lakh.” Sharmila says it is not the money, but the attitude that bothers her. “When my husband died, several people visited us to convey their condolences,” she says. “It is just tokenism. Nobody is interested in actually helping the families. I get Rs 33,000 as pension. I have to pay school fees, and a rent of Rs 4000.

Jyotsna Garge, president of the women’s wing of ex-servicemen of Maharashtra, an organisation associated with the BJP, admits the  state government is not doing enough to support the widows. “The widows of jawans who are martyred at the border still get better facilities,” says Garge. “But the families of the jawans who die premature deaths in accidents or elsewhere also deserve attention. They are worse off. Last year, there were around 25 such widows just in Western Maharashtra, and the count is only increasing.”

According to rules, family of the deceased soldier is entitled to a pension that depends on rank and circumstances of death. If the death has nothing to do with military service, ordinary family pension is issued—it is 30 per cent of the emoluments of the deceased. If the death is attributable to military service, for example, an accident at the cantonment or an illness related to service, then the pension is 60 per cent of the emoluments. If the death is in an operational area, then the pension is 100 per cent of the emoluments.

Namrata Patil (28) lives in the Shirdon village of  Sangli district in western Maharashtra and has appeared for her Class XII examination. After her husband Sepoy Nandkumar died in a road accident in January 2016 her in-laws refused to take her in.  “I live with my brother and we take care of my two kids aged 9 and 7,” she says. She gets Rs 16,000 as pension. “That too, began eight months after my husband died and will reduce in 10 years,” she adds with despair. Since Nandkumar died while on leave Namrata is entitled to only 30 per cent of the emoluments. The government later introduced an “enhanced ordinary family pension” that allowed widows and families to get 50 per cent of the emolument for the first 10 years to help them get back on their feet. In 2026, Namrata will be move to a reduced pension, a fact that worries her greatly.

Namrata Patil (28) and Varsha Choughule (24) speaking to a local news channel. Namrata’s husband Seopy Nandkumar and Varsha’s husband Sepoy Ashok died in a road accident. (Image Courtsey: Namrata Patil)

Pune-based Garge, who documents and reaches out to women like Namrata, says there are many girls from the interiors of Maharashtra. “They marry young. Their education is side tracked, and when the husband dies, they have nowhere to go. Most of the times, the widows are unaware of their rights. Often, the in-laws abandon them by labelling them ominous or unlucky.”

Varsha Choughule (24) lost her husband Sepoy Ashok in August 2016, when he had come home on a 15-day holiday to Sangli for Raksha Bandhan. “He met with an accident, and was admitted to the hospital. But he didn’t survive.

Within 10 days of Ashok’s death, Varsha was asked to leave by her in-laws. Even though Ashok died in August 2016, Varsha started receiving her monthly pension of Rs 15,800 two months ago in January 2018. “There was some mistake in the documents,” she says. “I received little help from the officials in correcting it. I lived with my parents in the village during that period, and after the provident fund was cleared, I bought a place in Miraj town of Sangli.”

Vashra recently passed her Class XII exam and is looking for a job. “I want to be a policewoman. I am training for it,” she says. Her decision is based on the emotion of wanting to serve the country, like her husband. At a time when military forces are often used as a tool to propagate nationalism, widows of army and paramilitary jawans in Maharashtra are struggling to make ends meet.  Once the words and the posthumous tributes dry up, the battle to get a widows pension only begins.

(#GenderAnd is dedicated to the coverage of Gender across intersections. You can read our reportage here. Use #GenderAnd to join the conversation)

Parth M N is an independent journalist and a Fellow at the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI)