Saturday, February 24, 2024

Andhra Pradesh High Court dismisses PIL challenging restrictions in pension grant

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The Andhra Pradesh High Court dismissed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) challenging the restriction on grant of pension to various sections of society.

The State of Andhra Pradesh has been operating a system of grant of pensions, to various sections of society, under GO Panchayat Raj and Rural Development (RD.I) Department, dated 13.12.2019. The said GO provides for grant of pension to 12 categories of persons. However, Rule 4 (1)(i) of the said GO restricts grant of pension to only one person in a family except where the second person is a disabled person with 80% and above degree of disability; dialysis patients (CKDU) / Severe Mental Retardation / PLHIV (ART); and Pensions sanctioned, vide dated 26.10.2-19, and Memo dated 08.11.2019.

The petitioner challenges this restriction in grant of pension on the ground that the said restriction is violative of Articles 14, 21, 39(A) and 39(E), and 41 of the Constitution of India apart from being violative of sections 3(1)(c), 4(2) and Schedule-I of the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 and violation of National Social Assistance Programme Guidelines issued by the Government of India, Ministry of Rural Development and also violation of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Thandava Yogesh , Party-in-person contended that the said provisions of the Constitution mandate that the Government of the State would have to ensure minimum sustenance to all citizens and more specifically the citizens who are unable to fend for themselves on account of old age, or economic backwardness. Yogesh contended that the beneficiaries enumerated in the 12 categories set out in GO would squarely fall within these parameters and would have to be given financial support and assistance without any restriction including the restriction that only one member in the family would be given financial assistance.

Thandava Yogesh has taken the Court through the provisions of the Unorganized Workers Social Security Act, 2008 and the guidelines under the National Social Assistance Program issued by the Government of India. He would submit that these provisions are binding on the State Government and the State Government, while taking assistance from the Central Government for distribution of pensions, has violated the said guidelines by putting forth the restriction of grant of pension to only one member of the family .

He draws the attention of this Court to Guideline No.2.2, which enumerates the sub-schemes being operated under the National Social Assistance Programme, which includes an old age pension scheme, and Guideline No.2.3, which states the eligibility for grant of old age pension, are the requirement of crossing the age of 60 years wherein the pension would be Rs.200/- per month, and to cross the age of 80 years to be entitled for a pension of Rs.500/- per month.

He pointed out that there is no restriction that the pension can be given only to one family member and a reading of the eligibility criteria makes it clear that any person above the age of 60 years would be eligible for such pension.

Kiran Kumar Vadlamudi, Government Pleader contends that the provisions of Articles 39 and 41 which are part of the Directive Principles of State Policy are not enforceable by any Court. He would also submit that the provisions of the Unorganized Workers Social Security Act, 2008 would be applicable to cases where persons, who were part of the labour force, require assistance on account of various factors. He would submit that in the present case, the criteria for grant of pension is not whether the beneficiaries are part of the said force or not and the criteria for grant of pension would be on the basis of whether they meet the requirements set out in G.O.Ms.No.174.

On the question of the usage of Central funds in the distribution of pensions under GO , the attention of the court is drawn to paragraph wherein the details of the amounts spent for grant of pensions in which states are given, and to paragraphs 22, 25 and 26 to show that the amounts spent by the State Government, are wholly disproportionate to the amounts given by the Central Government, and as such, the contention that the State Government is unreasonable in restricting the grant of pension is incorrect.

Kiran Kumar Vadlamudi, submitted that the State Government, after considering the best manner of distribution of pensions, had taken a policy decision that the best manner of ensuring financial assistance is to take the family as a unit. He would also rely upon the judgment of the Supreme Court in Balco Employees Union’(Regd.) vs. Union of India to contend that the executive has to be given leeway in economic and policy decisions, and such discretion cannot be subjected to judicial review, unless the said policy is so extreme or unreasonable that no reasonable person would accept such a policy .

The petitioner had contended that the State Government while incorporating the central assistance into the State scheme cannot bring any fresh restrictions which are not there in the central scheme.

The Division Bench of Chief Justice Dhiraj Singh Thakur and Justice Justice R. Raghunandan Rao noted from the statistics set out by the respondent makes interesting reading the Central component of old age pensions is Rs.188.74 crores the State component is Rs.10,164.08 crores. The central component of widow pension is Rs.91.07 crores while the State component is Rs.4,129.44 crores. The central component of disabled pensions is Rs.9.05 crores while the State component is Rs.2594.31 crores. The statistics said that Rs.19161.66 crores is being spent, annually, by the State of Andhra Pradesh towards grant of pensions to various sections of society.

In view of these figures, the contention of the petitioner that the State Government is not following the guidelines set out in the National Social Assistance Program cannot be accepted by the High Court.

The Supreme Court in Ashwani Kumar vs. Union of India had considered the issue of assistance to elderly and old persons, including grant of pension for elderly and creation of shelter spaces apart from geriatric care and medical fees for elderly people. The Supreme Court, while being sympathetical to the plight of the elderly, had qualified the direction to the State Government, for a revisit of the grant of pension to the elderly, by holding that such grant of pension would be depending upon the availability of finances and economic capacity of the Government of India and the State Governments.

The Supreme Court, while reiterating the need to take care of the old and infirm was also alive to the fact that such policies and decisions would be depending upon the availability of finance and the policies of the Government of the day. It would not be appropriate for the Court to interfere with the Government decisions of the Government, as the same would have to be left open to the Government of the day.

“The State has taken the stand that it has decided to treat the family as the unit of consideration for grant of financial assistance to the disabled sections of society. This is a policy decision taken by the State on an economic issue. It would not be appropriate for this Court, exercising jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution of India, to review such a policy and determine whether the object of consideration should be the family or the individual. Such decision would have to be left to the discretion of the Government”, the order read.

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