Over 70,000 "Fake" Pensioners In Punjab, Recovery Sparks Political Row
Many in Punjab have been left in the lurch after a major scam, in which more than 70,000 people were illegally drawing benefits worth around Rs 162.35 crore, was detected
For 65-year-old Gurtej Kaur in Punjab's Moga district, the day begins with a visit to the bank to ask after a pension - a meager Rs 750 per month - that she has not received since May.
"I don't know why I have not been receiving the pension amount. I am a senior citizen with no other earning member in the family. I take care of some of my expenses by sewing clothes. The government should continue my monthly pension," she said.
There are many like Ms. Kaur in Punjab, who have been left in the lurch after the department of social security detected a major scam - more than 70,000 people were illegally drawing benefits worth around Rs 162.35 crore.
Although the names of the illegal beneficiaries have now been struck off the list and the state has ordered recovery of the disbursed amount, it will likely take several more months before the money is recouped and sent to Ms. Kaur and the others.
Officials say the fraud dates back to 2015 when tens of thousands claimed to be eligible for old-age pension using fake certificates to bypass the minimum age rule - 58 for women and 65 for men.
There were also other beneficiaries, such as destitute and disabled persons, who did not meet the criteria either.
Sangrur, Bathinda, Amritsar, Muktsar, and Mansa are the districts with the most numbers of these illegal beneficiaries
Gurtej Kaur, 65, has not received her monthly pension of Rs 750 since May
However, the recovery order has kicked up a political storm with the opposition Akali Dal calling it "anti-human", while the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) has demanded action against erring officials
Dr. Daljit Cheema, an Akali Dal spokesperson, said the order meant 70,000 families would be left with no pension, as against the Congress's claim of raising pensions to Rs 2,500 per month.
"The government managed to detect this fraud, which took place in the Akali Dal administration. It is time to make recoveries also from those officers who allowed it to happen," he said.
Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has hit back, pointing out that deserving beneficiaries had been added to the list since he came to power in 2017.
He also accused the previous administration - an alliance of the Akali Dal and BJP - of "fraudulently" helping illegal beneficiaries.
"My government had added 6 lakh genuine beneficiaries... while weeding out the ineligible ones who were fraudulently getting social security benefits under the patronage of the erstwhile SAD-BJP government," he was quoted by news agency ANI.
"These things happen when political parties become selfish and indulge in wrongful acts to promote their own interests," the Chief Minister declared.
While the Congress and the opposition exchange barbs over this issue, it is critical for the state government to ensure that senior citizens and those genuinely deserving of social security and support from the state, are not left high and dry.