Shooting Old Pensioners

Public perception about pensioners is fixed on retired generals and former Grade 21 CSP Officers even though they constitute less than 1% of the total, 80% of pensioners draw amounts less than Rs 1500 pm. Can anyone in his/her right mind consider this enough for survival in this day and age? There is a glaring disparity between the rates of pension being drawn by pensioners, the older the pensioner, the lower the rate. In April 1977, the maximum pay of a person in Grade 1 was Rs 140, his pension was Rs 98. It was increased to Rs 340 in May 1977, to Rs 640 in 1983, to 860 in 1987, to 1310 in 1991, to 1770 in 1994 and finally a 100% increase in 2001 to Rs 3520. The present day Grade 1 pensioner in his early sixties is drawing almost 2500 rupees as pension. The old, very old, pensioner who retired on a pension of 100 rupees in April 1977 and who is now in middle eighties, was given “Dearness Allowance” of about 10% periodically and his pension has risen to about Rs 600. The disparity between the pensions of old and new pensioners is painfully large, the difference between Rs 600 and Rs 2500 for the same post (and responsibility) is more than four-fold, it is scandalous to expect old people to live on this meagre amount well below the poverty line, it is a wonder they are still alive. Widows in this age group with even lesser chances of an alternate income draw half this amount!

Seven classes of pensioners draw different rates depending on the date of retirement despite serving in the same grade for the same length of service. The callousness involved, particularly in the lower grades, is self-evident. I am unabashedly quoting (albeit with his permission) most of this article from the letters of Mr I A Sherwani, a retired civil servant who deserves kudos for almost single-handedly fighting the pensioners case. Imagine pensioners exposing themselves to the rigours of legal complications, involving endless visits to lawyers’ chambers and courts, particularly in the face of a Finance Ministry determined to be hostile and unfair, opposing even desperate pleas for fairplay. Those on whom Fortune has smiled have shown amazing callousness towards their poor and starving colleagues, will this article nudge someone’s conscience?

All over the (civilized) world salaries and pensions are protected equally against the ravages of inflation and rising prices e.g. to quote the Civil Service Pension Scheme issued by the British Treasury States, “you will receive annual increases in time with the rise in the “cost of living” so that the benefit maintains its original buying power”. When pensioners were ignored in generous increase of 35% granted to military and civilian personnel, the then Advisor on Finance, V.A. Jafarey, himself now a pensioner, gave the lame excuse of shortage of funds! Pakistan has the dubious distinction of being possibly the only country in the world practicing callous apathy towards pensioners, not only is this unjust but it is an open violation of Islamic injunctions on equality, justice and benevolence. Consider the attitude prevalent in the Finance Ministry, a corollary of the colonial mindset. In the appeal submitted to the Appellate Bench they contended that increasing pensions was an act of “Grace”. The two sentences appearing in the operative part of their submission which became part of the judgment are self-explanatory, viz “(1) liberal interpretation of pension laws/rules rendering them totally ineffective is neither permissible nor possible and (2) on grounds of personal hardship, inconvenience, disliking and paucity of funds for decent living of a pensioner, the pension related laws, rules and regulations cannot be altered, modified or struck down” words etched in infamy.

Why is this situation allowed to exist at all? When the Mohtasib recommended in 1986 (he cannot give an order) immediate removal of this painful disparity, the Finance Ministry flatly refused and asked for a review. When the request for a review was rejected, they stood by their blatant callousness. Many prominent Parliamentarians were requested to help, no one responded. One Senator promised to take up the case with the President, and what was the response of the Honourable President? “I personally agree with the Mohtasib but ……………….”. No pensioner was asking for the President’s personal views, they were asking for his intervention not only as a Head of State but as a human being. After all, he too was once a retired Finance Secretary, and had not retired as a human being too. When the Federal Shariat Court declared the disparity to be repugnant to the injunctions of Islam, the Finance Ministry appealed to the Supreme Court and surprisingly won their case.

The Constitution Petition in the Supreme Court was opposed by the Finance Ministry vehemently, “in our view, a new ground or a new avenue can be explored on the basis of some legal principle and not merely on the ground that appears to be just and equitable…”, so much for the pre-eminence of justice and equity in an Islamic State. Justice Rustam S Sidhwa, observed “…the need to remove all disparity between past pensioners and new pensioners…..requires serious attention, for, under the Shariah, the State has an obligation to treat equally persons evenly placed by virtue of equal length of faithful and loyal service…..It is hoped that the Government shall address itself to these questions. Perhaps the Federal Shariat Court at some stage will look into these matters….” There was, of course, no possibility that the Finance Ministry would pay any heed to these observations of a Supreme Court Judge.

The Ministry gave two main reasons for their refusal viz (1) shortage of funds and (2) pensioners had no case in law because increase in pensions was an act of grace and the Ministry had full discretion to grant “Dearness Allowance” as and when they considered it necessary. The plea of shortage of funds is a red herring. Pensioners have never asked for additional benefits, they have only been requesting for a fair distribution of available resources. When it was pointed out to Mr VA Jafarey (who was pleading shortage of funds in denying this increase to pensioners) that the increase of 35% to the serving could be reduced to 25% to accommodate pensioners, he shrugged his shoulders and kept silent. The other reason was the insistence of the Supreme Court “to remain within the ambit of the law”. If the law permitted the Finance Ministry to starve pensioners, the Court could do nothing about it. Firstly, there is no such law and if there is one, it is a bad law and should be struck down. The Federal Shariat Court’s pronouncement that the disparity was repugnant to the injunctions of Islam was swiftly set aside summarily and was not discussed, it finds no place in the judgment of their lordships. A major reason for this is the helplessness of the “pensioner community”, the majority of whom consists of lower rank pensioners, and like other poor people they can expect no justice from their rulers. The Law, as it is, is a form of economic terrorism, it violates the dignity of man and equality before the Law. But are there any listeners?

The budget is likely to be presented next month, can Shaukat Aziz be persuaded (now that he has US$ 12 billion in the kitty and Pakistan’s credit ratings have improved) to announce a package (forcing “trickle-down economics” to take effect before they die) for old, very old pensioners –” i.e. a 100% increase of those who retired before April 1977, (or even June 1983) or for those who are more than eighty years of age? A flat rate of 5 or 10 or 15% will increase disparity and hurt rather than help. A rational, stable solution can follow. In the meantime, old pensioners must learn to die gracefully. Gang-rapes and Karo-Kari and honour killings sell, pensioners’ woes on the other hand are dull and drab, why should newspapers waste space to support them on their front pages? Being privileged to know of the President’s penchant for fairplay and justice, one can only appeal to Pervez Musharraf sense for it, he must not allow his Finance Ministry to get away with murder! On the other hand if he finds himself powerless to intervene, let’s get on with shooting old pensioners, otherwise they will never fade away and will remain a pain in the neck of our “bright future”!