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"Did anyone ask the State to spend crores for “GODAVARI & KRISHNA PUSHKARALU?” Did any Christian ask for “CHRISTMAS KANUKALU?” Did any Muslim ask for “RAMJAN THOFA?” But thousands of crores were spent", the Court noted.
The Andhra Pradesh High Court on Monday made stern observations regarding Government spending while disposing of two pleas challenging the Andhra Pradesh Government’s halt of pension payments to single women, the widowed, and the elderly.
In this respect, Justice Battu Devanand stated:
The Court was hearing two petitions that assailed the government’s arbitrary stoppage of pension payments, without granting the petitioners an opportunity of presenting their case.
The first petition concerned around 170 persons, mostly single/widowed women from families below the poverty line (BPL), whose pensions were discontinued after political interference.
There was no official record of their marriages or their separation or the death of their spouses because the caste elders of the village had declared the marriages to be at an end.
The second petition represented the concerned of five senior citizens (also belonging to BPL families) whose old-age benefits were stopped. The petitioners’ benefits in both the petitions were stopped in September 2019. The benefits amounted to Rs 2,250, the order sets out.
The benefits were being received under the YSR Pension Kanuka, previously called the NTR Bharosa, and before that, the Indiramma Programme.
The State asserted that the aggrieved beneficiaries in the first plea were not single/widowed as they claimed and hence could not avail the government’s benefits. Responding to the second petitioners, the State averred that they were not entitled to the assistance either since some of their children were salaried government employees and others owned pieces of land.
Declaring the discontinuance of payments as unreasonable in light of heavy government expenditure on other projects and festivities, the Court spoke of the need for sensitivity when handling matters involving social assistance.
In the petition moved by single/widowed women, the women were stated to not actually be widowed/unmarried according to the State. The Court, however, hypothesised that no married woman would misrepresent herself as unmarried for financial aid unless dire financial circumstances forced them to take such step.
Justice Devanand went on to opine that this was especially so given that “in Indian culture and customs, marriages hold great sanctity", and that married women were “accorded a certain level of dignity and respect” in society.
Therefore, the State had to understand and consider the claims of such women with “a human touch”, Justice Devanand emphasized.
The issue of stopping assistance to the petitioners who supposedly had children in government service and owned land was also directed to be viewed with similar sensitivity, the Court stated.
In the course of the order, the Court also reprimanded the State for not making inquiries and giving the petitioners an opportunity for hearing before the Grama Sabhas prior to halting pension payments.
With some degree of vehemence, Justice Devanand records that denying the petitioners these opportunities was nothing but “throwing the helpless vulnerable women and old aged persons into starvation.”
These financial assistance schemes were implemented to provide relief and aid to the vulnerable. The Government, being a trustee of public funds, has to use these wisely, Justice Devanand exhorted.
The petitioners’ unpaid dues were therefore ordered to be disbursed.
To direct the disbursal of the payments, the High Court also relied on Court pronouncements in RD Shetty v. Airport Authority and other cases. The Judge emphasized that the modern welfare state could not “give or withhold largess in its arbitrary discretion or at its sweet will”, and that it had to “act for the public good.”
In the future, the Court directed the respondents to allow a beneficiary whose benefits were being cancelled to defend their claims before the Gram Sabha. This is necessary since the Gram Sabha recommends beneficiaries for schemes as per the Government Order notifying the scheme.
Advocates Kolla Venkateswarlu and M Krishna Rao represented the aggrieved pensioners, while Advocates Koti Reddy, Raviteja Padiri, and other Government Pleaders appeared for the various State functionaries impleaded as respondents.
Read the Order here: