Listen to this article:
Kolkata: “Please do the needful so that I can pass my last days with prestige, honour and freedom from financial anxiety,” 82-year-old Kalyani Bhattacharjee, widow of late freedom fighter Niranjan Bhattacharjee, wrote in an October 2017 letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs, a year and a half after her Swatantrata Sainik Samman family pension had suddenly stopped despite no fault at her end.
Niranjan spent over a year in Barisal jail after being arrested in connection with his involvement in the August Movement of 1942, better known as the Quit India movement. The jailed life took a toll on his health. He chose to stay at his place of birth, Morakathi village within Ujirpur police station limits in Barisal district of present-day Bangladesh, at the time of Partition, but crossed over to West Bengal in 1962 with his wife and two daughters, literally penniless.
Even though the pension scheme for freedom fighters and their families was launched in 1980, Bhattacharjee did not apply for it. He died in 1982, at the age of 65, after suffering from lung cancer for three years. His wife applied for the family pension in the mid-1980s and started receiving it in 1993.
After the sudden halt on pension payments in May 2016, octogenarian Kalyani had knocked on every possible door till her death in September 2020 to prove that she had submitted her ‘life certificate’ on time in 2016 and that the pension had been stopped even though she did nothing wrong.
But her wish remained unfulfilled. She died without seeing her pension resume. This happened despite the bank, after three years of denial, finally acknowledging, in November 2019, that the mistake happened at their end due to the overwhelming workload at the time of demonetisation.
“She could have lived her life with dignity, as self-dependent, which she always wanted to. But mistakes on the part of the bank and the MHA turned her dependent on us. She died utterly disappointed, heartbroken, full of anxieties,” said Indrani Basu, Kalyani’s younger daughter.
Till May 2022, her family members have failed to get her dues.
“We duly submitted her death certificate in 2020, just as we duly submitted her life certificates when she was alive. The MHA has the proof that she complied with all the protocols. All we get are more letters in long gaps of silence,” said Kalyani’s son-in-law Nandan Kumar Basu, a retired history teacher.
The Basus, both of whom are senior citizens, did most of the legwork for ailing Kalyani.
It all started in May 2016, when all of a sudden Kalyani’s pension stopped. Upon enquiry at Saradapally Branch of Allahabad Bank (now Indian Bank) in the Bhadreshwar area of Hooghly district, she was told that it will be solved. Months passed, but nothing happened. Then came November, the month for submission of life certificates of pensioners. But on November 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced demonetisation and the banking staff’s priority changed.
It was a struggle for Kalyani, returning multiple times from the bank without success, to finally be able to submit the life certificate and get a receipt. That was on November 12, 2016. But pension payments did not resume. Till December, banking staff and officials did not entertain any queries, citing excessive work pressure due to demonetisation. Kalyani started shooting off letters, including to the MHA, from the beginning of 2017.
On July 6, 2017, the chief manager of Centralised Pension Processing Center (CPPC), Allahabad Bank, situated in Lucknow, wrote to the under secretary, freedom fighters and rehabilitation division of the MHA, that Kalyani “submitted life certificate (A/C No. 21341705462, PPO NO: MHAFF9601993) after a gap of more than one year and her pension has been stopped since May 2016 (last submitted in November 2015)”.
There was visible contradiction in the letter – November 2015 to May 2016 makes for six months, not a year.
Nevertheless, the letter said that on such cases of delay of over a year, “as per (MHA’s) new guidelines of disbursement of freedom fighter pension at para 4.2.1, the pension should not be resumed automatically by bank, and at para 4.2.2 no arrears for the period of more than 1 year should be paid by the bank, without prior approval.”
“Please accord your sanction for starting her pension and payment of arrears,” the letter said.
The response from the MHA came six months later, on January 8, 2018. Pawan Mehta, under secretary to the Government of India, wrote to the chief manager, CPPC of Allahabad Bank, “In the present context, it has been observed that Smt. Kalyani Bhattacharjee had submitted her Life Certificate on time i.e. November, 2015.” Mehta asked for the bank’s explanation for stopping the pension.
As nothing happened till May 2018, Kalyani wrote to the MHA once more. This time, MHA gave the bank a reminder that their response was still awaited.
The response from Allahabad Bank’s CPPC came on June 11, 2018, saying, “Pension was stopped in May 2016 as life certificate was not submitted in May 2016 by pensioner.”
Submission of life certificate in May was a new proposition Kalyani was hearing, Nandan said. Life certificates are always being submitted in November, according to him. The CPPC’s letter cited an Allahabad Bank head office circular (No. 13334) and MHA guideline that says, “In case where the pensioners are above the age of 80, the life certificate should be taken by the bank twice a year (six monthly),” and argued that since Kalyani did not submit her life certificate in May 2016, pension had been stopped.
There were two major problems with the response. One, the new rule of having to submit the certificate twice a year was never informed to pensioners. Nandan claimed there was no notice on the branch premises and no member of the staff ever informed them. Above all, even the certificate that pensioners need to fill in, as late as in 2018, had the following printed on it: “To be submitted by the pensioner once a year in November.”
The second problematic aspect of the bank’s June 2018 letter was misinformation. It said that the pensioner submitted her life certificate only in November 2015 and November 2017. Since it was more than one year, the pension could not be started without the ministry’s approval.
Nevertheless, the chief manager of Allahabad Bank, CPPC, wrote to the MHA again on September 19, 2018, requesting them to accord their sanction for the resumption of payment of pension and arrears. The same request was repeated on October 5.
To this, the MHA replied on December 3, 2018, telling the bank that the information the MHA sought for had not yet been furnished by the bank. “It is again requested to furnish a report on the steps taken by the bank in finding out the reason for the non-submission of life certificate by the pensioner for more than a year,” the letter said.
“The bank could have simply admitted that it was their mistake but they did not. We had to resend copies of the November 2016 acknowledgement,” said Nandan. Kalyani had meanwhile approached the central grievances redressal cell (CGRC) of Allahabad Bank in March and December, 2018, and both times the CGRC promptly asked the branch concerned for immediate redressal, but to little effect.
She also approached the banking ombudsman at the Reserve Bank of India but the ombudsman found no fault of the bank in its January 2019 order – the submission of the life certificate in November 2016 did not feature in its order at all. It just parroted what the bank submitted.
Kalyani wrote more letters. “The acknowledgement of November 2016, 2017 and 2018 proves nothing?” she asked in a letter to MHA in January 2019.
By that time, Nandan had collected a copy of the MHA rule book at her request. Upon going through it, they found that the provision of six-monthly submission of life certificates for pensioners above 80 years of age clearly mentions that if the life certificate had not been submitted in May, apart from stopping the pension the branch concerned had also to make a physical verification at the pensioner’s residence to find out why the life certificate had not been submitted.
Neither was she informed of this rule, nor did anyone make a visit to her home, she wrote in the January 2019 letter to the MHA. Even the printed proforma of the certificate said it was required to be submitted once a year, she pointed out.
Months passed; her letter was greeted with silence.
The family approached Lok Sabha MP Sougata Roy, of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), requesting him to bring the matter to the attention of the home minister. Roy wrote to home minister Amit Shah and finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on July 26, 2019, requesting their intervention. The finance minister responded on August 16, informing Roy that she had forwarded Kalyani’s petition. Shah’s reply came in September, informing Roy that the matter was sent for the necessary steps on August 20.
Whether as an effect of Shah forwarding the complaint or not, the bank did arrange for a physical verification at her residence on August 21, 2019, when an officer took her photograph with the morning’s newspaper – proof that she was alive on that day.
This triggered hope. Then there were another two months of silence before the good news came – on November 28, 2019, the bank authorities admitted their mistake.
“We have to submit that we have been advised by our branch that pensioner Smt Kalyani Bhattacharya was regularly submitting her life certificate to the branch but our branch officials were unable to submit in system due to heavy rush on demonetisation process,” wrote the assistant general manager of CPPC, Allahabad Bank, to the under secretary of the MHA’s freedom fighter division, requesting the MHA to close the case at their end.
“My mother thought, finally, finally the day had come! Finally, she will start getting her pensions and the arrears! Finally, she could pay off all her debts! But that was not to be. There was silence again. Now on the part of the MHA,” recalled Indrani.
Kalyani wrote to the MHA again in June 2020. “I moved every corner and took all possible attempts and produced my acknowledgement receipt of life certificates chronologically. Finally, the CPCC agreed (on) their negligence for the late submission of life certificates and also mentioned (that) the pensioner submitted all her life certificates on time. Now everything is transparent; one or a few officers kept aside the matter and suppressed their fault. Still, seven more months passed, the pension payment is yet to start… aren’t all these events and evidence enough to release my pension?” she asked.
“Now I am, as to say, on the verge of physical as well as mental agony. I am not sure about my survival,” the octogenarian wrote.
She survived only three more months.
There has never been any more reply to the family’s letters, neither from the MHA nor the bank.
“I think those at the MHA are heaving a sigh of relief that she is dead. Probably the MHA is hopeful they can get away by not paying the dues anymore,” said Nandan. “In my late 60s, after having undergone a bypass surgery and prolonged hospitalisation due to COVID-19, I do not seem to have the physical ability to do the legwork for dragging the ministry to court.”
Indrani had a deeper question. “We feel like fighting it out as a token of respect to her struggle for justice. But even if we drag them to court, will there be a solution before both of us are dead?”
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an author and journalist based in Kolkata.