Ramwati, a Delhi-based senior citizen, ought to have had her old-age pension enhanced after the age of 70, but the Delhi government refused to do so despite multiple applications. The amount was Rs500, which is a considerable sum for the underprivileged and those without an income. This is an amazing instance, where the Right to Information (RTI) Act and an order by the central information commission (CIC) finally set right a wrong.
The old age pension is a social welfare scheme introduced by the Delhi government in order to provide a stable monthly income to those who do not have any income source. It provides a pension of Rs2,000 per month to persons above the age of 60 and an additional Rs500 is provided if the eligible person belongs to a scheduled caste or tribe or is from a minority community or the age is above 70 years. The scheme is run by the department of social welfare and enrollment is on the basis of Aadhaar.
Ramwati, unusually enough, had four identification documents - (a) a ration card (issued in October 2005 and now expired) that showed her year of birth as 1945 (b) voter card issued in December 2005 showing her age in 2007 as 52 years, making her year of birth as 1955 (c) PAN card issued in August 2015 with 1 January 1945 as her date of birth (DOB) to enable opening of Jan Dhan bank account for receiving old age pension (d) Aadhaar issued in 2011 with DOB as 1 January 1945, which was updated in 2014 with DOB as 1 January 1949.
This reflects two issues. Even the poor and very underprivileged are forced to obtain multiple identity documents in order to safely get their government benefits. Worse, there are problems with many of these cards, affecting the poorest people.
With the help of Aakash Goel, an activist and good Samaritan, an RTI application was filed to ascertain the issue behind the failure to enhance Ramwati’s pension. The application asked for the status of her pension enhancement request. It required a first appeal before the department replied that her registration was on the basis of the voter card and that there was no provision for correcting her age in the scheme notification.
The department had picked one specific document out of four, which made Ramwati’s age the lowest in their records. So, Mr Goel filed an application with the election commission of India (ECI) to ensure that her age in the voter card matched that on the Aadhaar. This was done. Then, two more RTI applications were filed – first, to ask for the status of the application for the enhancement of her pension citing updated age on the voter card and second, asking for a copy of the original application where Ramwati herself stated her year of birth to be 1955.
In the appeal process of the first application, the chief public information officer (CPIO) was directed to accept the age proof submitted by Ramwati and update the records. Instead, Ramwati was made to repeatedly visit the social welfare office with all four documents and her bank passbook, while the CPIO refused to update the records.
The first appeal also did not deliver results and the matter went to the central information commission (CIC), which alone can take action against the CPIO.
This time, the answer revealed something interesting. While the government has always claimed that Aadhaar is the ultimate identity proof for those who have no other identity documents, the department replied that ‘Aadhaar’ is not ‘an admissible’ age proof under this particular scheme and Ramwati’s case would be considered only if she provides some other age proof issued before September 2015. This also meant that the wrong updation of her age on the Aadhaar did not affect this particular scheme but remains a problem.
A reply was filed on Ramwati’s behalf, pointing out that the PAN card and voter card had already been submitted as age proof.
On 7 August 2023, the public information officer (PIO) of the department of social welfare submitted to CIC that Ramwati’s pension had been revised to Rs2,500. And that the file is under process whereby she will be paid arrears for the past 56 months amounting to Rs28,000.
Ramwati is fortunate to have a very determined good Samaritan like Mr Goel (who is an engineer and management graduate from elite institutions), who came up with the idea of using RTI in a unique fashion to get results. Most others simply give up because the process is punishing.