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Footprints: pension woes

Footprints: pension woes

A month after his father died in October last year, 22-year-old Ubaidullah Abbas visited the Employees’ Old Age Benefit Institution’s branch in Karimabad, Karachi, to claim his pension. His father, Umar Abbas, had worked as a research officer at an NGO, Now Communities, and soon after his death, the employer had asked the family to get his documents in order to claim pension.

Ubaidullah was nominated by the family of now four people, including his mother and two siblings, to get the job done. His father’s friend accompanied him to the Karimabad branch so he could help run him through the system. There they waited for half an hour before a computer operator at the branch informed Ubaidullah that even though the number on his father’s EOBI card was correct, the card itself was registered in another person’s name.

“We were told that the person whose name was registered in the account had been receiving a pension of Rs5,250 for at least two years. That couldn’t have happened because my father registered with the EOBI on Dec 15, 2002,” Ubaidullah says. Since then, the 22-year-old has been jumping through hoops and visiting various departments, applications in hand, to get his father’s EOBI card registered under his name. Ubaidullah’s family lives in Federal B. Area and relies on money earned through teaching tuition classes. His mother, a government employee, is embroiled in an administrative battle with the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC). “The administration started questioning her seniority after she recently retired. They showed her a maternity leave document she had submitted, which added up to a year during her employment. So now, her pension will be less than her colleagues junior to her,” Ubaidullah added.

“This is not a unique case,” Nasir Mansoor, deputy general secretary at the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), says with reference to delays in payment of pension. “This has happened before.”

There are two ways of dealing with such a situation: file a case in a court of law, or, resolve it with the institution itself. Both options take a lot of time and effort, Mansoor says, but there is no quick fix solution when it comes to getting one’s pension in time.

Shafiq Ghauri, a former head of the trade union at Pakistan Steel, also a pensioner, identifies two persistent problems with the EOBI. “There’s a need to computerise the system of dispensing pensions.”

The need arises whenever a pensioner who has already waited in a queue for up to three hours is asked to provide details all over again during a system breakdown. Although the amount accumulated with the EOBI is enough for them to begin micro-financing, the focus of the institution is not the pensioners, he says. “Secondly, there have been corruption cases at the lower level which show where things stand with those in authority.”

Pensioners often have to seek an agent’s help to get the required amount, half of which is claimed by the agent himself. “What does it leave for the pensioner by the end of it?” Ghauri asks.

He explains that the situation came to light after the EOBI was robbed of Rs40 billion by the previous management. “Now they concoct excuses whenever pensions get delayed.”

At the same time, the future of around 500,000 EOBI pensioners is at stake, he says, since the government has yet to decide whether the institution should be run by the federal government or the provinces.

The EOBI recently ran a fresh set of advertisements in newspapers in which pensioners were asked to register themselves with the nearest Al Falah Bank branch (BAFL) as the bank will now disburse pensions starting Feb 1, 2017. Bank branches will register people on the same day and will be open on Saturday, Dec 31.

The reason for switching over from the National Bank of Pakistan to the BAFL is to cut costs, Abdul Wahid Uqaili, operations director at the EOBI, says. For a long time, a competitive selection process had not taken place, as was mentioned in the Public Procurement Regulatory Authority Act.

He explains that the BAFL was the lowest bidder among many the EOBI had come across through advertisements. “While dealing with the NBP, we came across instances where pensioners had to be physically present...this was not a good idea considering the long queues. We had no real-time information about the pensions disbursed and would have to wait till the end of the month to receive the details...It was time to change,” he added.

A spokesperson for the EOBI said pensions would be paid “as soon as pensioners register themselves at the BAFL branch”. The spokesperson said the introduction of biometric verification, which began in May this year, had helped in “making pension payments transparent”. He added that two sets of verification were carried out every six months to check whether the pensioner was alive or not.

When it comes to cases such as the one involving Ubaidullah’s family, Operations DG Uqaili says “these are one-off cases” which can’t be overlooked, but “by getting technologically literate we can catch people within our institution involved in fraud...It begins with us”.

Published in Dawn, December 20th, 2016

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