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Pension bailout after 7 suicides

Pinarayi Vijayan
 

Bangalore: The Kerala government has decided to clear the pension arrears of more than 38,000 retired employees of the state transport service who have been agitating since the payments stopped last June because of a cash crunch.

Ten days after a rap on the knuckles by Kerala High Court that directed the Left government to ensure that the pensions are not stopped under any circumstances, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Friday announced that the arrears, amounting to Rs 224 crore, would be paid at one go.

Seven pensioners have allegedly committed suicide since the payments stopped, which would haunt the Left Democratic Front government for a long time.

The two most recent incidents of suicides were reported from Thiruvananthapuram and Wayanad. While pensioner Karunakaran Nair consumed poison in the state capital, Natesh Babu was found hanging from a ceiling fan at a lodge in the picturesque hill district of Wayanad.

P.A. Mohammed Ashraf, general secretary of the KSRTC Pensioners' Organisation who had petitioned the high court, said the state government would borrow Rs 284 crore from co-operative banks to clear the arrears. "We came to the agreement last night following lengthy discussions," Ashraf told The Telegraph.

"We have just won a very tough fight to ensure that the pensioners are not denied their basic rights since the monthly amount is their only social security," Ashraf said.

The government involved co-operative banks as the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) did not have sufficient funds.

Transport minister A.K. Saseendran said the government would ask the co-operative banks to clear the arrears and make regular pension payouts until a permanent solution is found.

"We have decided to ensure all pensioners get their arrears in a lump sum within a few days. The government will support the pensioners until such time when the KSRTC is ready to take over the responsibility," Saseendran said.

While it is the responsibility of the transport corporation to pay the pensions, its poor financial condition has forced the government to take the responsibility of the payouts.

This is not the first time pensions have been disrupted. "It was no different during the previous government when pension payment was very erratic," Ashraf said, referring to the erstwhile United Democratic Front government headed by Oommen Chandy that cleared 24 months' arrears before it was voted out of power last May.

"Everyone knows the poor health of the KSRTC, but that is no excuse to stop pensions as we have nothing else to fall back on," Ashraf said.

The corporation had losses mounting to more than Rs 8,000 crore in the last financial year.

"Many of the pensioners are on regular medication. So they only need to imagine how difficult it would be for all of us," said Ashraf.

Although the high court had suggested that the KSRTC management set aside a portion of its monthly revenue towards pension funds, government sources said it was not that easy.

"The average daily revenue of the KSRTC is hardly Rs 6 crore, while the average daily expenditure, including salaries and pensions, is Rs 7 crore," said an official who did not want to be named.

The loss-making corporation that survives solely on the strength of the government and its budgetary allocations, has more than 33,000 permanent employees and 9,600 temporary staff.

"Since state-run entities like the KSRTC have a larger social responsibility, it's not easy to even trim its size," Ashraf said, adding he would be glad if pensions and salaries were paid without fail.

The KSRTC has a fleet size of more than 6,000 buses - from ordinary coaches to the ultra-luxury Volvo and Scania vehicles.

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