The Supreme Court yesterday said that the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP), which deals with pensions for elderly and other issues, was "prima facie" a good scheme but there were "huge gaps" in its implementation which needed to be filled.
A bench of justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta said that the Centre must have a machinery to implement the scheme so that it could be known as to which authorities were doing their job properly.
The court's observation came even as the Centre said that it "cannot go beyond" giving Rs 200 per month as pension to elderly persons at this point.
When Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Pinky Anand, who was appearing for the Centre, referred to NSAP, the bench observed, "You have a scheme. Prima facie it is a good scheme. It has to be implemented and for that you have to have a machinery".
The ASG told the court that NSAP comprises of Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme, Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme, Indira Gandhi National Disability Pension Scheme, National Family Benefit Scheme and Annapurna scheme.
She said that NSAP has a budget of around Rs 9,975 crore in 2018-19 and the government has allotted funds for pension covering around three crore elderly persons under the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme.
"All this is fine on paper. It case of widows in Vrindavan, I do not think anyone of them has been given any money. You have no idea how many widows are there in Vrindavan and in Jagannath Puri. You read our judgements (in widows matter) and you will get to know," Justice Lokur said.
Former union minister and senior advocate Ashwini Kumar, who has filed a public interest litigation (PIL) concerning old age persons, told the bench that number of senior citizens have increased from 10.38 crore as per 2011 census.
Mr Kumar said that the "compelling" facts which have arisen in the matter were not controverted by the Centre and they should rather "shock" the government.
He said only seven states and Union Territories were giving about Rs 2,000 monthly pension to senior citizens, whose population would increase by over 300 per cent by 2050.
Mr Kumar also argued that there were instances of delay of around six months even in paying the meagre pension of Rs 200 per month to the elderly.
"The amount of pension (to old age persons) should be at least Rs 3,000 per month," he said.
The bench sought to know from the ASG as to who was the in-charge of NSAP and who were responsible for implementation of these schemes.
The bench was told that department of rural development was the in-charge of NSAP and in states, the social welfare department had the responsibility.
The ASG also said there was a national social assistance advisory committee to deal with these issues.
When the bench sought to know about the constitution of the committee and its job, the ASG said she would get instructions in this regard and would come back to the court along with the notification constituting the panel.
During the arguments, Mr Kumar told the court that right to live with dignity was a "pinnacle" and the Centre and the states must ensure this for the elderly.
"Test of good governance is that are the people satisfied. These schemes are good but they are not implemented. Please intervene in this," he told the court.
To this, the bench said, "Our intervention could be of two kinds. We can say there are schemes and you implement it. The second thing is passing a meaningful order".
"There appears to be a gap. We have to fill up that gap. The endeavour today is to find out and fill the gap. It appears there is a huge gap," the bench said.
At the fag end of hearing, Mr Kumar said that the issue was whether 12 crore people in India could live on Rs 200 per month pension.
The bench asked the Centre to file an affidavit within three weeks indicating actual constitution of bodies mentioned in NSAP which deals with monitoring and evaluation of the schemes.
It also asked the government to apprise it whether there was any grievance redressal mechanism and if social audit of these schemes has been conducted.
During the hearing earlier, Mr Kumar, who was also the Law Minister during the erstwhile UPA government, had said the Centre has said it was giving Rs 200 as old age pension which was "not sufficient" as inflation was rising.
Mr Kumar, in his plea, had said there were a large number of aged people, most of whom were living in poverty, without any roof over their heads or proper clothes, food and budgetary allocation for their welfare was also paltry.
The petitioner has also sought that adequate number of old age homes be established in the country and direction be given to maintain and operate such homes enable the elderly live their life with dignity.