Is the new pension scheme a case of old wine in a new bottle?

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In a last ditch effort to woo voters, on March 5, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maan-dhan Yojana (PMSYMY) in Gujarat. Announced in the 2019 interim budget, the PMSYMY is billed as a “mega-pension scheme” to provide old age security for the unorganised sector worker. Designed as a contributory pension scheme, in which the government contributes a matching share to beneficiary contributions, the PMSYMY will provide an assured monthly income of Rs 3000 to beneficiaries from the age of 60 onward. Taken together with the Ayushman Bharat and other insurance programmes launched by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) like the Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana (PMJJBY) and Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana (PMSBY), says the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) publicity material, India’s 40 crore unorganised workers will now have access to comprehensive social security.

In its early days in power, social security, and particularly contributory pensions, emerged as an important pillar in the Modi government’s welfare politics. In its first two years in office, the government sought to articulate its vision for welfare in the grammar of “empowerment” and “poverty elimination”. Building a social insurance architecture was an important pillar through which this was to be achieved. This was visible in a 2015 speech given by the PM while launching insurance programmes. “Poor people need to be empowered” he said, “…then they will be geared up to fight poverty on their own strength and free themselves of poverty”. Reiterating this view in an Independence Day speech a few months later, he said “when the purchasing power of the poorest of the poor in the society increases, nobody can stop that economy to flourish…therefore it is our intention to give impetus to that…we have laid great stress upon social security and also the welfare of the poor”.

Interestingly, this early emphasis on insurance programmes, perhaps because of implementation failures that I will go on to discuss, soon disappeared from the political rhetoric. The narrative on empowerment and poverty alleviation gave way to showcasing individual schemes from Ujjwala, Ayushman Bharat, to housing and now the PM-Kisan. It is instructive that even after announcing the mega pension scheme in the 2019 interim budget, the BJP has kept references to the PMSYMY to a minimum in its election speeches. When the scheme has found mention, it is usually from the perspective of expanding government benefits to new constituencies of citizens who, to quote the prime minister, “haven’t received any help from previous governments”. Social insurance is no longer about empowerment and poverty alleviation. Rather, it is yet another sop to deal with the electoral fallout of the crisis in India’s economy. This can only be interpreted as a tacit admission of the failures of this government’s welfare strategy.

Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research

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