New Delhi: The Central Information Commission (CIC) pulls up the Employees Provident Fund Office (EPFO), Kolkata for unlawfully withholding the pension of a 76-year-old man – now on his deathbed – for the last 16 years. Adding to his woes, information on his case was sequestered as well. The case shines a light on how retired government servants are deliberately harassed and have to struggle to get their rightful dues.
The order by central information commissioner M. Sridhar Acharyulu came on November 13, on an appeal made by Parveen Kohli on behalf of the weather-beaten septuagenarian – Subhash Chandra Banerjee.
In an earlier order in October this year, the Commission noted that Banerjee was “seriously ill and almost on his deathbed”. Kohli subsequently filed an RTI application to highlight Banerjee’s case of maltreatment.
A victim of delay and denial
The order stated that Banerjee “is a victim of delay and denial of payment of pension”. He had started working in 1969 and on attaining the age of 58, had became entitled to receiving a monthly pension from EPFO under the EPS95 Scheme. Despite being eligible to draw his pension from August 2000 onwards, his claims were repeatedly turned down.
With the exception of being paid Rs 1,000 as his minimum due for the month of June 2017, which too was later reversed, EPFO had arrogated his entire pension. “After that, 100% [of his] pension has been stopped by EPFO and the status is the same till now,” recorded Acharyulu in the order.
Simultaneously, he also recorded Kohli’s allegation that by indefinitely withholding Banerjee’s pension and denying him his government-owed dues, EPFO was violating orders of state and national-level Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions.
The State Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum (SCDRF) opined that “the respondents shall calculate the monthly pension of the appellant according to the law of the Employees’ Pension Scheme, 1995, within three months and such assessed and calculated amount of monthly pension shall be payable to the appellant w.e.f. 01.09.2002.”
PF commissioner refused to release pension on state consumer forum order
Instead of implementing the SCDRF order, the EPFO office challenged it before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum. Upon appeal, the national forum also ruled in favour of Banerjee and observed the need for government institutions to honour the orders of the state-level redressal machinery.
“The provident fund commissioner would have done well in graciously accepting the order passed by the state commission, instead of driving the complainant in litigation up to this forum. We dare say that, in all probability, the cost of litigation incurred in the case would be more than the petty amount of monthly pension, the complainant might ultimately receive,” the NCDRF held.
Nevertheless, as EPFO officials continued to deny Banerjee his pension benefits, Kohli moved the CIC. He pleaded that “EPFO Kolkata has snatched the fundamental right to life and liberty of Mr Banerjee by stopping his pension and also by violating the orders of SGDRC and NCDRC”.
No authority could withhold even a part of pension or gratuity: SC
In his order, Acharyulu noted that a precedent had been set by a division bench – comprising Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and A.K. Sikri of the Supreme Court – in the case of State of Jharkhand versus Jitendra Kumar Srivastav, when they adjudicated that not even a part of pension or gratuity could be withheld.
“It is an accepted position that gratuity and pension are not bounties. An employee earns these benefits by dint of his long, continuous, faithful and unblemished service. Right to receive pension is treated as right to property […] On the basis of such a circular, which is not having force of law, the appellant cannot withhold — even a part of pension or gratuity.”
As EPFO continued to sequester information on Banerjee’s case, Kohli pleaded for penalty proceedings against the central public information officer J. Nayak and the payment of compensation to Banerjee.
The CIC, on October 1, finally issued a show cause notice to the CPIO asking why the maximum penalty should not be imposed on him. It also ordered Nayak to provide certified copies of the entire file concerning Banerjee’s pension within one week. Furthermore, It held the Regional Provident Fund Commissioner II responsible in the event the documents sought by the appellant were not provided within a week.
EPFO website showed payments which were never made
Before long, Kohli submitted before the CIC on October 31 that the EPFO website shows various amounts paid into Banerjee’s account, though they were never credited.
For its part, the EPFO submitted before the CIC on October 11, that all pension arrears would be credited into Banerjee’s account. However, only Rs 1.59 lakh worth of arrears were deposited against a total of Rs. 6 lakh owed. It also did not share the details of the account and the calculations, prompting Acharyulu to note that except for the Supreme Court “no one else, including EPFO, has any power to re-examine the issues which have already been settled by the NCDRC”.
And the harassment continued
Kohli later revealed that EPFO officials deliberately sent the documents sought under the RTI plea to Banerjee’s old address despite being informed of the new one. Additionally, many documents were sent in loose bundles and torn envelopes in order to further rankle the old pensioner.
As Ajitesh Kumar, regional PF commissioner submitted that Ahmed was the “actual authority” who dealt with Banerjee’s pension file, the CIC issued a show cause to him – asking why the maximum penalty should not be imposed upon him for not providing the complete information within the stipulated time period. The CIC also imposed a Rs 10,000 token penalty on Nayak for not furnishing all the information to Banerjee about his case.