Binabai is sitting on the ground towards the end of a long row of people, a white disposable plate in front of her. Eating with her eyes fixed on the plate, she suddenly looks up. Years of hard labour make her look older than her 65 years. Someone has just called out for another serving of food, and there is a glint in her eyes. She thinks for a second, and asks for two of the over-fried puris and some potato gravy. One puri on her plate and she says, “Enough, enough.”

Smiling she says, “My stomach hurts. I have not eaten so much in months.”

To her left another, older, woman is finishing the last bits of food on her plate. She asks for two puris and hides them neatly in the folds of her crumpled orange saree. That is for the night or later, whenever she gets hungry, she says.

For these elderly men and women, the possibility of hunger is not a distant prospect. It is something that looms large in their outlook.

From March 4 to March 8, almost 10,000 of them—the older among them running well into their 80s—converged from their little worlds across the country on to the spot marked X on their map, called Delhi. Binabai came from Rajasthan. For those five days they did not budge from the one street marked for protestors near Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. They were speaking for millions of unorganised sector labourers like themselves who go through a lifecycle of malnourished childhoods, decades of debilitating manual labour, reaching old age facing two stark choices—further taxing physical work or starvation.

As agricultural labourers, construction workers, rickshaw pullers, rag pickers, coolies and sex workers among others, the unorganised sector constitutes over 92 per cent of the workforce. It contributes over 50 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but there is no one to bat for them in the matter of fair wages, their right to pension or a dignified retirement. Their demand is simple. After toiling for as long as their bodies can take it, without any social security, they want to live decently in the evening of their lives.

Through the “Pension Parishad”, led by social activists Aruna Roy and Baba Adhav, they want all informal sector workers above the age of 60 to be eligible for pensions under the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme (IGNOAPS). Under this arrangement, the Centre currently provides a pension of  Rs.200 a month for those who fall in the “Below Poverty Line” (BPL) criterion. Workers above this fixed poverty line do not receive pension.

On the face of it, this is a small demand, given that these people have little apart from the daily grind to keep the wolf at bay.

Over the past 62 years, Bhupia Devi’s hands have developed a sturdiness that the rest of her body belies. As a child she went from one farm to another in Bihar’s Araria district, to lend a hand in the agricultural labour her parents undertook. Every day they would wake her up just before sunrise and take her along. On the days she refused to go because she wanted to play or sleep longer, she says she remembers how her mother would not eat dinner and how she would sleep with half her stomach full.

When she was a little over 13, she was married to a man in the same district. Nothing changed. They would both wake up every morning before the crack of dawn and leave home looking for daily wage labour. In Araria, there were too many hands and too little work. It was either agriculture or contract work that landless labourers could undertake.
Both paid poorly. On the days the couple worked, they would eat two full meals of roti with mirchi ki chatni (a paste made of chillies and spices). And when they were hired to cut stones at the quarry, each got up to Rs. 50 a day.
It was to those days that the two eagerly looked forward, because “then I would cook rice and potatoes with onion or some green vegetable,” said a smiling Bhupia Devi.

Even today it is for that one day in a week, sometimes in two weeks, that she and her husband wait for with almost childlike joy. Only, they hardly get work now and are often unable to undertake the strenuous labour. Both their sons are migrant labourers and shuttle between Delhi and Punjab, earning just about enough to sustain themselves.
“Still, when they come home once a year they buy rations for the house,” says Bhupia Devi proudly.

The couple has learnt to live on less than the Rs. 20 a day that they regularly make. But the government does not consider them poor. They do not feature in the state’s BPL list and get no pension. “I don’t know who came for the card survey and when. But if we don’t work for one day, no food will be cooked in our house,” says Bhupia Devi.

“Araria is one of the most backward districts in Bihar and those belonging to the Musahar community (whom the government also calls ‘Mahadalits’) are the most marginalised,” explains Kamayani Swami, who has been working with informal labour in the district for years through the Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan. “Traditionally rat catchers, many Musahar in Patna even today eat rats and discarded parts of chicken that are usually inedible. This is their staple diet; one that they can afford on less than Rs. 20 a day.”

[aside][quote]Until recently, even when she was over 85, Meena continued working as a domestic help. “Nowadays I don’t have the energy to stand for long, so I am not able to do any work. But when my neighbours in the slum go out to work, I take care of their children and they give me food in return.” When they too have little food to spare for Meena, she asks for alms to feed herself[quoteclose][/aside]

Those in the district between 20 and 40 years of age usually migrate to bigger cities. Without any education or skills, they can’t find work in the organised sector and hence resort to petty jobs in the city. While many consider this a temporary phase, unskilled workers continue working as informal labour for decades, as the formal sector remains closed to them. They earn very little and are often unable to support their elderly parents.

As they grow older, they usually come back to their villages, finding it difficult to sustain themselves in cities where is there is not much work available for them.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which ought to provide 100 days of work a year to every village household, is poorly implemented. Only a few manage to get work under the scheme, and those who do are sometimes paid as little as Rs. 10 for a day’s work.

The minimum wage that workers are entitled to receive is, in fact, in several instances, the maximum wage that workers find impossible to receive. In the guise of technical assessment, to assess the amount of work done by a labourer days after a work has been completed, NREGA authorities have been paying workers, in Jaipur, for instance, anywhere between Rs. 1 and Rs.13 for a day’s work.

“Efficiency norms are being used to hammer down guaranteed wages after assigning as many 200 people work on laying one road sometimes. There is no site management in Bihar,” says Kamayani. The mandated “unemployment allowance” too is almost never paid for those who are not given work under the scheme.

Only last month, 90-year-old Meena was released from year-long detention. She was “caught” by a team of the Department of Social Welfare in Delhi for begging in February last year.

As she talks, the tears flow copiously, but the next moment, when she begins narrating yet another anecdote from her life, Meena laughs just as willingly.

Not long after she was born, her mother died of complications in pregnancy. Youngest of three sisters, Meena got married at 12. Soon after their marriage her husband would drink and beat her almost every day, she says. While she would run to her father’s house each time she got scared, her father would console her and send her back. Even he passed away soon after. One day when things went out of control, Meena took her only daughter and left the house. Her husband died some years later and the little land he owned was taken by his brother. Working as a domestic help in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Meena brought up her daughter, sent her to school till she “voluntarily” decided to quit in eighth standard and then got her married. Until recently, even when she was over 85, Meena continued working as a domestic help.

“Nowadays I don’t have the energy to stand for long, so I am not able to do any work,” she says with tears welling up in her eyes. “But when my neighbours in the slum go out to work, I take care of their children and they give me food in return.”

Only when they too have little food to spare for Meena, she asks for alms to feed herself. It was on one of those days that the raiding team caught her.

Ask her why she doesn’t go stay with her daughter and she says, “She sells bangles in Kolkata and her husband is a rickshaw puller, but they are sending both their children to school. They want to educate their children. Things are already so difficult for them and I don’t want my daughter to have to beg so that she can feed me.”

Heerabai’s spinal cord has given in after decades of waste-picking. At 65, she works part-time as a surrogate for sweepers of the Pune Municipal Corporation to be able to pay for the Rs. 8,000 that being hospitalised for traction in a charitable trust would cost. While her insurance provides Rs. 5,000, she works doubly hard to gather the remaining sum. Most do not trust government hospitals.

Without legal protection for their jobs, proper working conditions, health care or employment benefits, everyday life is extremely difficult for the tens of millions in the unorganised sector. Their income from unskilled jobs like domestic work, vegetable vending, making garlands, etc, or contract labour, is meagre.

With stagnant incomes and rising costs, the only expense they can afford to cut down on is that of their children’s education. Many pull their children out of school, if at all they have been enrolled, so that the children can also help in running the household. This has created generations of illiterate and unskilled workers who join the ever-expanding informal economy.

The elaborate paperwork required for accessing the old age pensions, like documents that prove one’s domicile for at least 15 years, has ensured that large numbers of workers are denied the pension which is their right.

“I had applied for pension 12 years ago. I still have not received a rupee. Despite running around the office several times, nobody tells me about the fate of my application,” says Muniyamma, a domestic worker in Bangalore. Middlemen and other intermediaries take advantage of the protracted application process and targeted delivery of pensions. In Uttar Pradesh, several elderly people have given away a whole year’s pension as bribe to middlemen who help them with the application process.

Kamla Mhaske’s body clock has not failed her in her entire 70 years. Each morning it sounds an alarm and she is out of her house with a huge, once-white bag that is now a dark gray from months of waste picking. Having spent at least 40 years of her life screening debris for paper, plastic, metal and glass, she’s an expert at spotting the reusable parts from huge piles of rubble. But age and deteriorating eyesight have been tugging her away from work for some years now.

Unable to walk too far or carry the weight of her bag for long, she now looks only in the vicinity of her slum in Pune for waste. Consumption being rather low within the slum, the scrap she picks fetches no more than Rs. 50 a day. Earlier, even on bad days she would collect waste worth Rs. 150 from residential and commercial areas, she says. It is with these fifty rupees that she now feeds, clothes and shelters not just herself, but her four grandchildren.

The Ministry of Rural Development has recommended that the amount be increased to Rs. 500, and that the IGNOAPS be universalised, with select exclusionary criteria. But these recommendations, it states, will be implemented only by the end of the 12th Plan period, in 2017.

While Kamla’s husband is no more, her son deserted his wife and their four children, leaving them in her care. Her daughter-in-law passed away soon after. Mothering her grandchildren at 70, Kamla becomes a child all over again while playing with them. She enjoys bringing up the kids, she says, but dreads the idea of their falling sick. “While I can barely feed them millet rotis and some saag with what I earn, I really can’t pay for a doctor.” She has put off cataract surgery and her vision has been blurring steadily.

“I just have to spend longer wading through scrap carefully so that I don’t cut my hand on metal or glass. It’s better than paying for an operation,” she says. Kamla is not eligible for IGNOAPS because her monthly income of Rs. 1500 exceeds the BPL criteria of Rs. 590 per month. She buys PDS wheat for Rs. 7 a kilo and has not got sugar from the ration shop since last Diwali.

Not far from Kamla’s house stands a house made of metal sheets now seriously corroded, with a white board hanging precariously on one of the sheets. Black letters that were painted on it have bled all over the board, making it impossible to say what was once written on it. However, several people walk in and out of the house throughout the day. It is the house of their “jhola-chaap” doctor, who is regarded highly among workers living around the area.

With a significant presence across the country, these “doctors” either do not have a licence or are qualified to practise Ayurvedic or Unani medicine. However, they prescribe allopathic medicines to the workers. The high doses they prescribe provide instant relief to workers unaware of the long-term side effects.

While these self-proclaimed doctors could be called quacks, this is the only “treatment” daily-wage labourers can afford. If there is something he cannot cure, the doctor asks them to visit a hospital—a luxury few workers can afford. If he can’t cure an illness, their next resort is the pharmacy.

Only if all else fails do they visit a private hospital. Despite their meagre earnings, most do not trust government hospitals. It is a conclusion they seem to have arrived at through collective experience. The price they have to pay for this, however, is huge.

Heerabai’s spinal cord has given in after decades of waste-picking. With an injured back, at 65, she works part-time as a surrogate for sweepers of the Pune Municipal Corporation for the extra Rs. 50 a day. She has taken up this job to be able to pay for the Rs. 8,000 that being hospitalised for traction in a charitable trust would cost.

While her insurance provides Rs. 5,000, she works doubly hard to gather the remaining sum. Very early in her life, she can’t remember when she says, she was given in marriage to an old man who died away a few years after their wedding. Her only daughter is married and lives in Jharkhand. Heerabai is not poor enough to qualify for old age pension.

Millions of elderly unorganised sector workers fall outside the BPL criterion because they earn up to Rs. 50 a day and are thus ineligible for pension, according to the Centre. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) has estimated that there are at least 423 million workers in the sector. Nearly 86 million are elderly, above 60 years of age, but pensions are currently provided only to 21.3 million workers who satisfy the BPL criteria. Even among these, whom the government has classified as “poorest of the poor” and thus eligible for pension, six million are not getting the pension.

According to the scheme, BPL workers above 60 are entitled to a monthly pension of Rs. 200. Those who are older than 80, receive Rs. 500. Had it not been for these 500 rupees, 87-year-old Muniappa would have been living without a roof above his head for years. Now, however, he has been homeless only for six months.

In Muniappa’s presence, one can sense the iron determination of a man who, despite no education, took care of his widowed mother, sent his son and daughter to school, got them married and finally built a one-room house in Seegenehalli village, Kolar district, Karnataka. As a boy, he would walk around the village armed with a bag, picking fruits and vegetables from farms, helping small landowners transport them.

As he grew older, Muniappa continued doing what he thought he could do best; carrying heavy loads. He worked as a coolie till he knew he couldn’t do the job anymore, at 70. After his wife passed away, Muniappa lived with his son and daughter-in-law in his house until he left six months ago. They gave him two meals a day as long as he gave them his full pension.

“But my pension has not been coming for nearly nine months now, so I haven’t been able to give them any money. Slowly they started ignoring me even when I said I was hungry. Why should I stay with someone who thinks I am a burden? I left my house,” he says.

Muniappa has now made the stairs of a nearby temple his house and eats the one meal a day that is given at the temple. Every now and then he goes to the Kappalamadugu village office from where he would regularly collect his pension, in vain.

This is not an isolated problem. Across the country, there are countless tales of even those who are entitled to the pension receiving the money only once every six months. The Rs. 200 allotted by the Centre towards pensions is no doubt a small amount, but if they get that money regularly, it means one extra meal every day, a lifesaver for millions.
The Centre urges all states to contribute at least the same amount towards pensions, so that elderly workers receive Rs.400 a month. But this is not binding. Thus several states contribute nothing towards pensions. In other parts, the elderly receive between Rs.250 and Rs. 800 as pension. It is only in Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Goa and Andaman and Nicobar Islands, that they get Rs. 1,000.

The pension currently being disbursed is grossly insufficient, according to the task force of the Ministry of Rural Development. It has recommended that the amount be increased to Rs. 500, and that the IGNOAPS be universalised, with select exclusionary criteria. But these recommendations, it states, will be implemented only by the end of the 12th Plan period, in 2017.

Members of the pension parishad, including social activists Nikhil Dey and Aruna Roy, said Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh had agreed to universalise the pension scheme by dissolving the APL-BPL divide and increasing the paltry sum of Rs. 200 that is currently being paid, with immediate effect. However, in his speech in Parliament Ramesh did not say anything about the quantum of increase in the pension, nor did he set any deadline or timeframe by which the proposed changes in the scheme would be implemented.

“I am not in charge of the treasury. But I have given my commitment to raising the pension amount and the eligibility criteria for receiving pension. I will raise the matter with the finance minister and the prime minister,” he said.
Members of the parishad, however, see no reason for comfort. They are concerned about the open-ended nature of the promise. “This is a death warrant for many of the elderly who have been fighting to get rid of the BPL criteria so that they can have access to pensions.” says Nikhil Dey, who is closely associated with the Pension Parishad. Many of the people fighting for universal pensions for years are no more today. For those who still around a livable pension is crucial. They no longer have the physical strength to carry on with the only thing they know, unrelenting labour.

The combined expenditure of the Centre and states on IGNOAPS was Rs. 1,651 crore in 2010-11. This means that a mere 0.2 per cent of the GDP is being paid as old age pension for the unorganised sector, which provides over 50 per cent of GDP. Universalising the scheme and increasing it to Rs.500 for all workers above 60 would still raise that to 0.51 per cent of GDP. It is doable, but that is not the reason for inaction, according to economist Jayati Ghosh.

“While Rs. 5.73 lakh crore is given away on various concessions and tax ‘preferences’, old age pensions for workers are seen as a ‘dole’ given for nothing. Providing pensions will increase demand among a large section of the population, which will have multiplier effects for small-scale producers. It is simple macro-economic logic. Pension payments are not merely a cost to the exchequer and should not treated like they are,” says Ghosh.

Interestingly, the government spends well over Rs. 19 lakh crore on pensions and other retirement benefits for the organised sector. They constitute less than 10 per cent of all elderly persons in the country. However, on the remaining 90 per cent, it spends less than a thousandth of this amount, i.e. Rs. 1,651 crore.

After a similar protest last year, thousands of workers went back home empty-handed. Thereafter, the task force under the chairmanship of Dr Mihir Shah, member of the Planning Commission, was set up to look into the matter. This year, the task force has made significant recommendations that could bring millions out of their abysmal state of living. However, it is anybody’s guess when or whether these recommendations will be implemented.

A traffic policeman, stationed at the Parliament Street signal, is carefully watching the thousands of workers gather outside Parliament to agitate on March 6. A parishad volunteer approaches him with a pamphlet that lists the problems that are plaguing the pension scheme. The policeman says, his voice cracking, “There is no one to take care of my grandfather in the village. He is 90. He really needs this pension.”

And at the dharna, an elderly worker says, “We have come to Delhi to beg for the pension that is our right. We came here before; we have come now and will come again. Then, after five years the government will increase our pension by 25 paise.”