20th December 1998
A large number of letters directed to the People's Forum are concerned with pensions. Pensioners write regarding delays in receiving pensions and arrears, non receipt of cost of living allowances, and other anomolies.The People's Forum interviewed the Director of Pensions P.M.P. Jayawardene to find out her views on these problems and also any difficulties faced by the Department in fulfilling the onerous task of disbursing over 17 billion rupees in pensions.
"Since 1995, the Pensions Department has been fully decentralized," the Director of Pensions, Ms. Jayawardene said. "This was done in stages. In 1990 it was decentralized up to district level and handled by the District Secretaries or G.A.s.
"After 1992, decentralization was extended up to Divisional Secretariat level. The Divisional Secretaries are the Assistant Government Agents (AGAs). Pension matters are now handled through the Divisional Secretariats so that pensioners can go there easily. Funds are sent direct to the District Secretaries by the Treasury, on our request. Most of the problems the pensioners write about therefore concern the Divisional Secretariats."
According to the Director, there are over 350,000 pensioners at present. The budget for Pension payments is expected to be Rs. 18 billion for the current year. She said the department had five sections handling civil pensions, including foreign pensions, Widows and Orphans Pensions, Local Government pensions, Teachers' pensions and the Public Services Provident Fund (PSPF) of Non-Pensionable Government Service.
She explained that nearly 50,000 government servants, as for example, reserve police officers are non-pensionable and contribute from their salaries to the PSPF. Teachers' pensions are handled separately because prior to 1970, the teachers had their own pension system. Foreign pensions are paid in foreign currency for pensioners who have taken up permanent residence abroad.
"A government officer is eligible for a full pension of 85% of his salary after 30 years of service", Mrs. Jayawardene said. "A labourer gets up to 90% of his salary. "The Award of Pension form was earlier issued by the Pension Department. After 1995, according to circular 16/95, the form is issued by the Head of the Department or organisation the pensioner works for. The Department issues a certificate and we send the cheque for the pensioner's gratuity, which is 24 months pension, to the Head of Departrnent."
Many pensioners have queried the calculations of the deductions which are made from their monthly pensions for a period of ten years, to cover this gratuity payment or commuted pension and the sum restored after ten years. They claim that the amount added back is less than the amount deducted monthly. When questioned on this Mrs. Jayawardene explained that the deductions made do not cover the full amount of the commuted pension which works out to 85% of the officer's salary for 24 months.
The monthly deduction is only a nominal ten per cent at most, and reduces to five per cent for those with 30 years service. Also, she said that government departments usually have a loan facility at low interest for their own officers. When the officer retires any balance remaining on his loan is deducted from the commuted pension by the department concerned. So he receives physically a lower amount.
Speaking of complaints of delays in transferring pensions when requested by the pensioner, Mrs. Jayawardene said that this too should be done through the Divisional Secretary. A Divisional Secretary can transfer the pension to any other Division if required to do so. In the case of displaced pensioners from Jaffna, the Director said there is a Co-ordinating Office for the Jaffna District Secretary (GA) in Colombo 4. This office co-ordinates with the Pensions Department as well.
"If the Jaffna Co-ordinating Office or the Colombo Divisional Secretariat does not pay the pensions of displaced pensioners due to lack of documents, we handle these cases", Mrs. Jayawardene said. "We search for their pension details through the departments they have worked for. We have a record room with over 600,000 files. Every government servant has a Widows and Orphans Pension file. The W & O.P. Scheme started in 1898 before the Pension Scheme was initiated in 1902. In the case of displaced pensioners, we try our best at least to pay a temporary pension, if they have their pension card".
The Director explained that each Divisional Secretariat has a Pensions Branch, which handles the payment of pensions. The Colombo Divisional Secretariat has a separate office to handle pensions. Currently, there are 80,000 pensioners in the Colombo district, of which over 50,000 payments are handled by the Colombo Divisional Secretariat. They are short staffed so it is not an easy task. The officers working in the pensions branches come under the respective Divisional Secretaries. "In case of a problem concerning pensions, pensioners can go to their relevant Divisional Secretariat since the Pension Department files are there. We work through the Divisional Secretaries. The Pensions Minute gives authority to the Pensions Department to call for a file and settle pension matters if there are problems".
According to Mrs. Jayawardene, delays in paying of pensions often occur when the necessary documents are not submitted. For example, widows should produce their marriage certificate and the death certificate of the husband. However, many widows are unable to find their marriage certificates. Although they are aware that this is often a genuine problem they still have to exercise caution since there are cases where two wives apply for the same pension.
With regard to the question of pension for disabled children, regarding which many inquiries are received, Mrs. Jayawardene said that in 1981 the Widows & Orphans Act was revised to include the Disabled Pension Act. The pensions for disabled children can be awarded only by the Director of Pensions.
"We call for the files from the relevant Divisional Secretary", Mrs. Jayawardene said. "This pension is granted to those with permanent disabilities only. We have requested the Director of Health Services to appoint a Medical Board to each district. The Board has to certify a permanently disabled person. After the death of the disabled person's parents, we appoint a caretaker to draw the monthly pension. The disabled pension does not depend on the age of the recipient. As regards payment of W & O. Pensions to unmarried and unemployed children too, last October, we recommended a revision to increase the age to 26 years, as our educational age in the country has been raised.
By Wathsala Mendis
Come December eve rybody gets into a fes tive mood. On the one hand, it's the end of the year, and on the other, Christmas is here! Irrespective of race or religion, everyone feels it in the air.
Shops are spruced up and gaily decorated, people flock in their thousands to do last-minute shopping, hunting for the perfect gift, clothes are bought, cakes baked, cards sent, and carols sung. After all, Christmas comes but once a year. So why not have a ball and spend the last cent of that well earned bonus on Christmas fare?
There are many who go quite overboard during this season. To them this is the best season. The perfect ending to the old year. Or is it? Are there those who think differently? Could there be people who abhor the season or any aspect of its festivities?
G. Weerasinghe, Manager of a leading restaurant in Colombo, dislikes the booze that flows freely during the merrymaking. "It's the strengthening of family bonds that counts. As long as they reflect that true spirit in celebrating Christmas, all well and good. Instead, what do most people (or rather men) do? They leave the family behind, get together with friends or the office crowd, and happily booze it up. "Just ask yourself. 'Is this what Jesus would want Christmas to be? Is this what we want Christmas to be?" Mr. Weerasinghe asks resignedly.
Prof. Rohini Paranawithana of the Colombo University agrees that to a certain section of society Christmas is nothing more than busting up their money on liquor. "Family values and ties are conveniently forgotten and the spiritual side of Christmas seems to be slowly losing ground."
According to Rasika Priyadarshini, a schoolgirl from Kiribathgoda, people make it an excuse to have a good time. They interpret it to their own advantage.
True enough. "A lot of people think Christmas is all about making cakes and shopping like mad," says Mrs. A. Abeywickrema, a nurse attached to the Health Centre of the Colombo University. She attributes this to the gradual breakdown of human values and traditions. The more people go after material wealth, the further they drift from the religious significance of the day. "Christmas is for the have's to wine and dine and the have-nots to sigh and cry," Mohamed Allaudeen, a 25-year-old gram seller from Pettah puts it rather cynically.
One of his colleagues, Sampath Jayashantha, a salesman at the World Market chips in, "If you have money every day is like Christmas." Isn't there a boom in their business during the season? "Not as it used to be. Given the security situation in the country and the sky-rocketing cost of living, you can hardly expect people to come here. Most of the time we're out of business. December is like any other month for us."
"Most of the people don't give or share, though Christmas is all about giving and sharing," opines Thareek Khan, a DJ from 'Music International'. "They give five and expect 10 back. Typically Sri Lankan."
"I hate the way Christmas carols are played over the radio from the third week of November," a young man who refused to be named said. "What's more, they play the same carols over and over."
Living in a world of materialism and consumerism, it's true that the real spirit of Christmas is often lost in a mass of shopping, advertisements, sales, dances, parties and festivity. There's a certain section of society who neither know nor feel it's Christmas time at all. Maybe it is time to fight back and put back some of those old-fashioned family values into the season.
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