The Andhra Pradesh High Court on Tuesday (08th September) while hearing two Writ Petitions held that stopping payment of social security pension to the petitioners without conducting any enquiry or without issuing any notice is "illegal, arbitrary, discriminatory and against the object of social security pension scheme, against the principles of natural justice and violative of Article 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India".
Most importantly, the single bench of Justice Battu Devanand observed,
"While spending crores of rupees of public money for all the programmes, it is unreasonable to stop payment of meagre amount being paid towards social security pension in favour of the petitioners."
Interestingly, the Court remarked,
"At present also, thousands of crores of rupees are being spent under various programmes stating that it is for the welfare of the people. Can anyone forget spending crores of rupees for painting one political party colour to the government offices?" (emphasis supplied)
It may be noted that the YS Jaganmohan Reddy-led, Andhra Pradesh Government in 2019 had decided to paint all panchayat buildings in party (YSR Congress Party) colours. However, it can't be said with certainty if the Court was referring to this particular incident in its order.
The Background of the Writ Petitions
Writ Petition No.21104 of 2019
This Writ Petition was filed by 175 petitioners. The Counsel for the petitioners submitted that all the petitioners are from a backward village and they belong to downtrodden communities.
The petitioners were either widows or single women, who were deserted by respective husbands.
It was submitted that as per caste custom prevailing in their area, in the case of Husband-Wife separation, they do not go to Court to take divorce, rather, they go by the decision of caste elders, who declare that couple got separated and that's the reason most of the petitioners, who got separated from their husbands or deserted by their husbands, could not give any documentary proof to that effect.
He also submitted that most of the deaths of husbands of the petitioners were also not recorded in gram panchayat. All the petitioners are eking out their livelihood by doing coolie works even that work is not available regularly.
The Counsel further submitted that 5 years back petitioners were selected as eligible for pension either as widows or as single women after following due procedure and scrutiny.
Significantly, these pensions were paid in the earlier government in the name of "NTR BAROSA" which was at Rs.2,000/- per month.
the present government came to power also the pension was enhanced to Rs.2,250/- per month and continue in the name of "YSR PENSION KANUKA" and it was also paid to the petitioners from May, 2019 to till August, 2019.
It was submitted that suddenly since September 2019 pensions to the petitioners were stopped by the respondents with any inquiry and notice.
On behalf of the respondent Nos.4 and 5, a counter-affidavit was filed. The standing counsel for ZPP, MPP and Gram Panchayat appearing on behalf of the respondent Nos.4 and 5 submitted that after receipt of the complaints against the petitioners and others in the village that they were getting the pensions as widows and single women for which they were not eligible.
It was contended that after making such enquiry in the village, it was found that the petitioner Nos.84 and 128 only were eligible and other petitioners failed to produce any documentary evidence showing their eligibility for grant of pension.
Writ Petition No.10448 of 2020
This Writ Petition was filed by the 5 petitioners against the action of the respondents; particularly the 8th respondent who issued the impugned complaint against the petitioners to stop the old aged/widow pensions.
The Counsel for the petitioners submitted that the Government of Andhra Pradesh through Rural Development Department under "INDIRAMMA PADAKAM" introduced a pension scheme called a social security pension scheme
After conducting elaborate enquiry, the petitioners were identified and selected for the pension scheme and they were paid pension up to February 2020 and from the month of March 2020 the payment of pension to the petitioners was stopped.
On enquiry, they learnt that basing on the complaint made by the 8th respondent i.e., Village Volunteer the pensions of the petitioners were stopped.
It was contended by the Counsel for the petitioners that no enquiry was conducted and no notice was issued before stopping the payment of pension to the petitioners which is contrary to the procedure and nothing but a violation of principles of natural justice.
On instructions, the Standing counsel submitted that the petitioners were not eligible for pensions based on the eligibility criteria.
The Standing Counsel submitted that some of the petitioners' sons are government employees and some of the petitioners are having land in their name and as such, they are not eligible.
On a perusal of the Government Orders issued time to time, the Court observed, that it is clear that as part of welfare programmes the Government is implementing various social security pension schemes for the benefit of needy and vulnerable sections of the people which is undoubtedly laudable.
However, the Court observed that the government is not supposed to spend public money as per their whims and fancies as this public money is accrued from the payment of the taxpayers. This public money is the property of every citizen. The courts, time and again held the same.
Significantly, the Court remarked,
"Earlier also, crores of public money was spent for different activities in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Did any person in the state ask the State government to spend thousand crores of rupees for organizing 'GODAVARI AND KRISHNA PUSHKARALU'?. Did any Christian ask for 'CHRISTMAS KANUKALU'?. Did any Muslim request for 'RAMJAN THOFA'? But, thousands of crores of rupees were spent for these activities at the cost of public exchequer." (emphasis supplied)
The Bench was of the view that if the intention of the government to spend crores of rupees for all these programmes out of the public exchequer is for the interest and welfare of the poor and vulnerable sections of the people, definitely it has to be accepted.
Court's unique observation regarding the plight of the Petitioners
Regarding Writ Petition No.21104 of 2019
The Court acknowledged the fact that in Indian culture and customs, marriages hold great sanctity. Married women, especially, are accorded with a certain level of dignity and respect in society.
The Court was of the view that as per our culture and customs, no married woman would claim herself to be a widow, while her husband is alive and no married woman declares herself as a single woman as and when she is living with her husband.
In this context the Court remarked,
"The poor economic conditions of the women and their families may have driven them to strip off the pledge of marriage and enter widowhood while their husbands are still alive, to avail financial aid. In such event, as and when the government is implementing these social security pension schemes to provide some succour to the needy and vulnerable sections of the society, the condition of the poor women as stated above has to be understood and considered with human touch." (emphasis supplied)
Lastly, the Court said,
"Stopping payment of pension without placing the complaints received against the petitioners in the Gram Sabha for appropriate enquiry and stopping the payment of pensions even without issuing any notice is nothing but depriving the petitioners and throwing the helpless vulnerable women and old aged persons into starvation."
Regarding W.P.No.10448 of 2020
The Court observed that all the petitioners were senior citizens and aged between 62 to 78 years.
In this context, the court remarked,
"The reasons stated to disqualify the petitioners for pension appears to be unreasonable and unsustainable. Is it right contending that 78 years old woman is not eligible for old-age pension saying that her son is a government employee. With regard to other petitioners, the allegation is that they are having some land in their name. It has to be verified whether the allegation is correct or not and if so, the said lands are fit for cultivation and the petitioners are getting anything from that land to survive themselves. All these issues to be examined and considered with human touch."
In the result, the W. P. No. 21104 of 2019 and W. P. No. 10448 of 2020 were allowed with the following directions:
(1) The respondents are directed to make payment of pension to the petitioners from the month when it was stopped to till date within a period of 15 days.
(2) The respondents are directed to continue the payment of pension every month to the petitioners till the appropriate orders to be passed by the competent authority after conducting an appropriate enquiry, in accordance with the law, if so advised, to ascertain the eligibility of the petitioners in Gram Sabha after giving an opportunity to the petitioners.
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