The government should immediately announce its intention to universalise pensions with clearly defined exclusion criteria,Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh has urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a letter written in March. Ramesh has also asked the PM to reform the existing pension structure by increasing the coverage and hiking the amount.
The PM had directed Ramesh to evolve a comprehensive proposal for the restructuring of the National Social Assistance Programme and resolve the logjam with the Pension Parishad,which has been demanding,among other things,immediate universalisation of pensions. Subsequently,Ramesh held several rounds of discussions with representatives of the Parishad to thrash out critical issues,based on the report of a task force,led by Planning Commission member Mihir Shah,that recommended ways of restructuring the existing pension framework.
In his letter,Ramesh has recommended the setting up an expert committee to evolve the criteria for exclusion in universalising pensions. Sounding a note of urgency,he has said that certain reforms should be introduced right away.
Ramesh has asked the government to bring all pensions at par and increase the amount to Rs 500 a month for people upto 79 years of age and to Rs 1,000 for those above 80 from this financial year. The Parishad has demanded the amount be raised to Rs 2,000 a month. Currently,the monthly pension is Rs 300 for widows and disabled persons and Rs 200 for the elderly.
Ramesh has said that the definition of widows should be widened to include those above 18 as against the current age bar of 40,as well as include single/divorced women above 40. He estimated the total cost of this would be Rs 5,200 in 2013-14. He has also recommended reforms in disability pensions by relaxing some norms and enhancing amount. He has estimated the total cost of pension reforms in 2013-14 to be Rs 15,500 crore,which is over and above the Rs 8,500 crore allocated in the Budget. The pension amounts cannot be considered dignified under present cost of living circumstances, Ramesh has said in his letter.
The NSAP,a welfare programme administered by the Rural Development Ministry since 1995,includes pension and benefit programmes for BPL households like the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pensions,Indira Gandhi National Disability Pensions and Indira Gandhi National Widow Pensions.