Is Balagopal right in claiming Chandy left welfare pensions unpaid for 18 months?

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Thiruvananthapuram: There were two narratives that the LDF, by constant repetition, fashioned into political truths. One is the Oommen Chandy government’s incompetence in disbursing welfare pensions; it is said that when Chandy left office in 2016, his government had not paid welfare pensions for 18 months. The other is that the Pinarayi government has nearly doubled the number of welfare beneficiaries, from 34 lakh in Chandy’s time to 62 lakh now.

Both these carefully cultivated campaigns lost a bit of sheen in the Assembly on Thursday. It was Finance Minister K N Balagopal who first referred to the UDF’s 18-month delay. He was responding to the adjournment motion moved by Congress MLA P C Vishnunath on the delay made by the LDF government in the payment of social welfare pensions.

The finance minister was essentially telling the UDF benches not to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. “When the first Pinarayi ministry assumed power, it was burdened with the pension arrears of 18 months,” he said.

Vishnunath pounced on this statement right at the start of his speech. “The minister has once again repeated the patent lie of the 18-month pension arrears,” he said. Vishnunath then held up the White Paper brought out by Balagopal’s predecessor Thomas Isaac in 2016. “In this document, placed in this very Assembly, it states that the liabilities were below Rs 1,000 crore, which means there was a delay of just three months,” Vishnunath said. “Doesn’t a former finance minister’s document, that too of your own party, hold any value,” he asked.

Balagopal admitted that Isaac’s White Paper had indeed said so. “But a more authentic document, a reply given on the floor of the Assembly, tells a different story,” the minister said. He was referring to the reply in the Assembly on July 2, 2015, given by then social welfare minister M K Muneer to CPM MLA Raju Abraham. “This reply states that many of the pensions – old age, handicapped, widow and farm worker – were pending for 8 to 10 months,” the minister said. “That UDF government continued in power for another 10 months,” he said, explaining the logic behind the number 18.

Muneer was present in the Assembly and he promptly objected. He said the situation had changed after he had given the reply in the Assembly. “There was another reply given in 2017, by the then minister K T Jaleel. Like Isaac’s White Paper, it says the arrears were only for three months,” Muneer said. “And you know why pensions were delayed in the last three months? At that time the DBT (direct benefit transfer) system was introduced and the government had opened accounts in various banks. The operation was handed over to the Postal Department, which could not implement it for two months,” he said.

Balagopal did not contradict this. He only asked why large amounts ranging from Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 had to be paid to pensioners when the first Pinarayi ministry took over. “I myself know of a retired couple in Kollam who together received Rs 78,000 as pension just after the first Pinarayi ministry came to office. What made the government pay such amounts if the UDF had not piled up dues,” he said.

Opposition leader V D Satheesan, too, referred to Isaac’s White Paper. “But if you are still not convinced, there was another reply given by Thomas Isaac in the Assembly in 2017,” he said, referring to the then finance minister’s reply to CPM MLA M Swaraj. “In this reply also he clearly states that the pensions were left unpaid only for three months before the LDF came to power, from 2014 November to 2015 January. What’s more, Isaac also cited the technical difficulties that cropped up in the transition to the DBT system as the reason for the delay of three months,” he said, and added: “When this is what your own finance minister said in the Assembly how can you now claim that the Oommen Chandy government had accumulated arrears of 18 months.”

The other claim made by Balagopal was that the LDF government doubled the number of welfare beneficiaries. Both Satheesan and Vishnunath contested this, though both conceded that the number of pensioners had increased. Their argument was that the LDF government had limited the pensions to one. A widow who had enjoyed both the widow welfare fund pension and the government’s social security pension during Chandy’s rule was now deprived of one of them.

Balagopal, however, insisted that it was not the case. “Which pension has the government cut,” he asked. He cited a government order issued by his predecessor Thomas Isaac and said that it clearly stated that individuals who had received welfare board pensions would continue to receive them. And this is given along with the social security pension,” the finance minister said.

“How can you say that,” Satheesan shot back. He then read out Isaac’s 2019 order that Balagopal had referred to. “Now that social security and welfare board pensions have been doubled, a new applicant can enjoy only one pension, either social security or welfare board. Since an individual is entitled to only one pension, once a beneficiary receives a welfare board pension the person’s social security pension would stand suspended.” After reading out the order, Satheesan asked: “How can you come to the Assembly and speak against a government order.”

It was only a vague reply that Balagopal could muster. “In practice, two pensions are still being paid,” he said, virtually conceding that an order limiting the number of pensions to one existed.

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