Citing Right to Life, CIC Pulls up EPFO for Stopping Widow's Pension for Three Years

The commissioner also directed the release of all information to applicants with similar complaints within 48 hours and to fix the accountability of officers and staff in such 'public authorities' that had allowed for such a lapse to occur.

New Delhi: Reacting sharply to a case where pension was denied to a widow after the Employees Provident Fund Organisation began making payments to bank accounts directly, as the widow had earlier been receiving remittances through post office accounts, the Central Information Commissioner has directed the public authorities and officers in charge of pension payment to ensure that pensions are not stopped in this fashion. It also asked such public authorities to release all information sought by applicants within 48 hours.

Critical of the conduct of officers in this case, as the widow had been drawing a pension of Rs 505 per month through her post office account before it was stopped, the Commission also directed that a ‘charter of duties’ be prepared in the department to fix responsibilities for dereliction.

In the order, Central Information Commissioner M. Sridhar Acharyulu called upon the authorities and officers “to communicate in-person to the pensioner about requirements like furnishing certificate, change of account and if needed, send a messenger to the house of the pensioner”. He also directed them “to promptly respond to any oral or written grievance/representation by the pensioner about non-payment of pension.”

Widow filed petition after her pension was stopped for not opening bank account

The order came on a petition filed by a widow, Savitri Devi, who filed an application under the Right to Information Act with the EPFO, Uttarakhand, as her pension got stopped. In the application, she had asked for the certified list of widows of M/s Nadehi Sugar Mill who were pension beneficiaries, a list of widows whose pension had been stopped, the reasons for the stoppage of her pension and whether it would ever be released or not.

In his response, the central public information officer (CPIO) had on April 21, 2017, refused to provide information on the first two points under Section 8 (1) (j) of the RTI Act. Not satisfied with the CPIO’s reply and subsequently with the refusal of the first appellate authority to pass any order, the appellant had moved the Commission which on April 12, 2018, noted the explanation of Regional Provident Fund Commissioner (RPFC) Kartikey Singh in the matter.

The Commission said Singh had submitted that as per the provisions, the “CPIO was not enjoined to provide third party information to the appellant under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act 2005 as the said information pertained to other P.F./Pension accounts.”

‘Information related to PF account of an employee is neither third party information nor personal information’

However, the Commission held that it had earlier in its final order in a case in March 2017 “held that information related to the P.F. account of an employee is neither third party information and nor personal information”. Therefore, it noted that the CPIO was bound to provide information related to other P.F./Pension accounts maintained at his office”.

On the stoppage of family pension being paid to Savitri Devi, the widow of Sri Rajpal, the Commission held that it was intimated that she was “a beneficiary of family pension under the erstwhile Employees’ Pension Scheme, 1971 (later replaced by the Employees’ Pension Scheme, 1995)”.

The order further recorded that “at the time of grant of monthly pension, some of the beneficiaries of the said scheme had opted for receipt of their monthly pension through their accounts maintained in post offices.”

However, this mechanism of payment of monthly pension through post office accounts was discontinued by EPFO and  the PPO files maintained at Post Offices were recalled. All such pensioners were advised to open bank accounts in a core banking solution (CBS) enabled bank branch, and provide a copy of the bank passbook (attested by concerned bank manager) to EPFO for suitable amendment in their PPO and release of pension through their savings bank account.

The reason as to why the pension of Savitri Devi was stopped in the present case was that she had not completed above procedure. Hence, her pension was released till August 2015 through her post office account and stopped thereafter, Singh had submitted before the Commission. This, he said, had also been intimated to her in the reply to her RTI application.

The RPFC also submitted that as Savitri Devi’s representative had visited the office on March 21, 2018 and submitted an attested copy of her bank passbook along with physical copy of her life certificate, her PPO had been amended and her monthly pension had been released along with the arrears.

The Commission, however, held that it was not this simple a case but it was a “case of stopping her pension of Rs 505 for more than three years to the widow”.

‘Suspension of pension amounted to denial of right to life’

It held that the RPFC Kartikey Singh “did not show any proof that he or his office has intimated Savitri Devi that she has to open a bank account and provide the account number otherwise the pension would be stopped. The PF based pension is an amount that sustains the pensioner to a great extent and its suspension for three years could be denial of her right to life. Such pension related information is related to life related issues and it should have been provided within 48 hours.”

The Commission also pulled up the EPFO for its conduct saying it should have tried to personally contact and advise the widow pensioner. “Instead of stopping of pension they should have personally contacted and advised her to open a bank account of at least continued the payment of pension until bank account was opened.”

‘Nobody in the public authority exhibited any human concern’

But it lamented that “nobody in the public authority exhibited any amount of human concern towards the poor widow and left her to suffer without pension for more than three years.”

“It is a case of inhuman governance by the public authority. It is also an issue of not providing information to the pensioner under the public authority’s core functioning area i.e. disbursing pension based on PF. The sad part is that the public authority did not even bother to resume pension payment to the widow at least on her RTI application,” Acharyulu said.

In view of all these reasons, the Commission said it had directed the CPIO to show-cause why maximum penalty should not be imposed upon him and also explain why the public authority should not be directed to pay compensation.

In the recent order, Acharyulu noted that in April this year, the Commission had come to the conclusion that “the pensioner had suffered unduly due to stoppage of her monthly pension and directed that all similar pension cases should be examined by EPFO Haldwani and an action taken report submitted to the CIC.”

‘CPIOs to respond to pension related requests within 48 hours

Having gone through the action taken report presented by Singh, Acharyulu ordered the EPFO to “circulate” an “order to all the branches / subordinate public authorities, asking them to maintain a register indicating that the pensioner was personally communicated the requirements for continued payment of pension etc. and that each CPIO shall respond to pension related requests within 48 hours”.

Lamenting that the “officers holding high ranks such as CPIO and Assistant PF Commissioner” had passed the buck in the present case, he also recommended to the CEO, EPFO to constitute a working group and evolve a charter of duties of each employee or officer and publish the same in their respective branches – saying it was also mandatory under Section 4 of the RTI Act – so that they do not take such excuse routinely.