The crew of Delhi-based news channels in Shimla are putting up at the Willow Banks hotel on the Mall road – the venue of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s media centre in the Himachal Pradesh capital. On Friday morning, reporters from Zee News, ABP News and TV9 Bharatvarsh stepped out of the hotel for interviews with locals.
Waiting for them outside was Rama Sharma, 62, who runs a small restaurant in the town. “I need to get back to work,” she muttered after speaking to ABP News. “I’m waiting for another channel crew to arrive. They want to speak to me.”
Sporting a pair of crocs with yellow salwar kameez and a green dupatta, Rama told her story before the cameras. She worked as a peon in the Indian Police Service for 16 years in Shimla’s Tutikandi suburb, and retired in 2020, when her monthly salary was Rs 35,000. Under the old pension scheme, or OPS, her pension – a monthly sum paid by the state to retired government employees – would have amounted to Rs 17,500, or 50 percent of her pay. But she receives only Rs 1,658 per month, thanks to the new pension scheme, or NPS, where the pension is equal to the interest generated on 40 percent of an employee’s corpus amount.
The piecemeal pensions under NPS, introduced in 2004, have been an unnerving force in the life of BJP politicians in Himachal Pradesh, which goes into election on November 12. The party faces the anger of government employees affected by the NPS, many of whom have been forced to return to the workforce after retirement to make their ends meet.
Rama Sharma, 62, runs a small restaurant in Shimla after 16 years of government service.
Rama, for instance, had to open a modest restaurant. “I will vote for the party that promises the return of the old pension scheme,” Rama told Newslaundry. “If Congress does it, I will go with them.”
Why pensions matter in Himachal
The fight for pension is a significant issue in Himachal because of the sheer strength of government employees here. According to BJP’s Avinash Rai Khanna, there are employed with the state government. Another 1.90 lakh employees have retired and draw a pension. In a state with only 55 lakh voters, these active and retired government employees – along with their dependants – form a solid bloc.
The Congress knows this. Last month, its state president, Pratibha Singh, the return of the old pension scheme in the state within 10 days if the party wins a majority. National leaders like Priyanka Gandhi Vadra this pitch. Its manifesto on Saturday promised the same.
The BJP, on the other hand, has been non-committal. Chief Minister Jairam Thakur has only promised a “” to the problem.
This slippery stand has rendered the Sangh Parivar’s cadre rather vulnerable. A senior leader of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, or BMS, the labour wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, told Newslaundry that the issue is working against the BJP in Himachal Pradesh.
“I can lie and defend the Sangh before news cameras because I’m a loyal worker,” said the BMS leader. “But I cannot lie to my cadre. The karamcharis are upset with us over pensions. They said they will vote for OPS, which is the Congress’s platform. The BJP might make a better pitch in the manifesto, though it might be too late for damage control.”
Enter the NPSEA
The collective responsible for these anxieties is the New Pension Scheme Employees Association, or NPSEA, which leads the movement for the return of OPS. The association has combined mobilisation on ground in Himachal Pradesh along with social media acrobatics to keep the issue alive.
Rama Sharma, for instance, was on news channels because of Bharat Sharma, the general secretary of the NPSEA in the hill state. He had spoken to the reporters a day before and arranged for Rama to be at Mall road the next morning for interviews.
A poster issued by NPSEA. It says, ‘Remove NPS, vote for OPS.’
At a nearby restaurant on Mall road, Sharma talked to Newslaundry about the movement and why a pension scheme from 2004 had become a political hot potato in 2022. “The NPS was brought to Himachal by Congress chief minister Virbhadra Singh in 2006,” he began. “It was backdated to 2004. Effectively, any employee permanently recruited into the government after April 2004 was covered under NPS, not OPS.”
Those who entered government service after April 2004, Sharma explained, have started retiring in the last few years. “They are now receiving measly pensions as compared to their senior colleagues covered under OPS, often a tenth of it,” he explained. “Their children are unemployed too, despite educational degrees.”
, or CMIE, at 9.2 percent, Himachal has the fourth highest unemployment rate in the country. The national average is 7.8 percent.
The NPSEA was formed in 2015. During the 2017 assembly elections, when the BJP was in opposition in Himachal, it had promised to form a committee and look into the revival of OPS. “The karamcharis voted for the BJP and it came to power. The committee, however, was only formed in February this year,” said Sharma. “It met only twice and did not address our demands.”
It was in February that thousands of NPSEA members from the town of Mandi – the chief minister’s constituency – to Oakover, the CM’s residence in Shimla, which was once used by the Maharaja of Patiala. The CM, Sharma claimed, refused to meet them. To make it worse, the protesters were dragged away by the police from outside Thakur’s kingly residence.
Bharat Sharma, 45, is the general secretary of the New Pension Scheme Employees Association.
In August, the NPSEA another protest in Shimla. This time, CM Thakur met Sharma and his colleagues. “He told us that he supported our demands 100 percent,” the activist said. “But added that if Himachal revived OPS, other states would have to do it as well. He said he would take up the matter with the Prime Minister in Delhi. Since then, other BJP MLAs have told us it is the Centre that has turned down Thakur’s OPS plea.”
Sharma’s claim about the Shimla-Delhi disagreement over OPS belies the BJP double engine election pitch in the hill state. Far from assisting it, the BJP at Centre has allegedly held back on the citizens’ demands conveyed by the BJP in Himachal.
Newslaundry reached out to a BJP spokesperson for comment. "The effect of OPS on the fiscal deficit is hundred times more than NPS," the spokesperson said. "Moreover, as part of due process, it is a decision to be taken by the Centre, not the state. If we can't do it, we won't commit to it."
How the NPSEA exploits social media
It takes 70 people to run the NPSEA in Himachal. The association has 12 units for every district in the state. It also has a chapter each in 110 blocks across Himachal. Its symbol is a finger on a red button. It reads, “vote for OPS”. Like Sharma, it is led by those who have full time government jobs but somehow eke out hours for their activism.
The NPSEA also has an IT cell for social media outreach. On Facebook, the association has a following of 73,000 members. District offshoots have their separate pages too. Sharma’s WhatsApp is replete with groups managing different aspects of the association. One of them, which this reporter inspected, is tasked with “fact-checking” BJP politicians’ claims on OPS revival.
The NPSEA recently claimed to have fact-checked a statement by Rajat Thakur, a BJP politician from Dharampur in Mandi. Thakur allegedly told a gathering that protesting government employees had told him that only PM Modi could revive OPS. “Fact: Rajat Thakur never met protesting employees,” said the fact-check. “Nor did the protesters ever say something like that.”
'Fact checks' released by the NPSEA on social media.
Given the Congress’s platform to bring OPS back, the NPSEA might be warming up to the party, even though it shies away from an open endorsement. The association’s IT cell has been aggressively sharing pictures of Congress candidates backing their demands. This includes Shimla (rural) MLA and candidate Vikramaditya Singh, son of former CM Virbhadra Singh, and Mukesh Agnihotri, the MLA and hopeful from Haroli constituency in Una district.
NPSEA posters advertising Congress leaders Vikramaditya Singh and Mukesh Agnihotri’s positions on OPS.
The BJP has not taken kindly to NPSEA’s activism. On November 3, it shot off a complaint to the Election Commission. “We had brought to your notice that some of the government employees are actively campaigning for the Congress party,” said the complaint, alleging that Pradeep Thakur, the NPSEA president, was in the bed with the grand old party because his father is the mandal president of Drang constituency in Mandi.
Far from backing down, the NPSEA circulated the complaint on WhatsApp and Facebook with the following caption: “Since baits did not satisfy them, they made a false complaint to the Election Commission with false allegations! And they say that only they can bring back OPS!”
Pradeep Thakur told Newslaundry that his father was indeed affiliated to the Congress. "But that's a separate issue," he said. "I personally don't have any political affiliation."
From government school to a highway stall
One of the flag-bearers of the NPSEA’s cause in Himachal Pradesh is Hari Das Thakur, 62, who runs a tea and maggi stall on national highway five, about 15 kilometres from Shimla.
In 2021, he retired as a peon from the Government Boys Senior Secondary School in Theog town. He had been employed there since 1997, but was permanently recruited only in 2009. If he had been covered under the OPS, Thakur’s pension would’ve been Rs 13,000 – half of his Rs 26,000 salary at the school. But under NPS, it is down to merely Rs 1,301.
“How can I survive in that little amount?” Thakur rued. “I have a son and he’s unemployed. So at this age, I was forced to open a highway stall to survive after retirement. Now I clean tea glasses and wash plates.”
The former government employee now makes about Rs 600 a day at the stall, serving occasional tourists and highway truckers. About Rs 400 of it goes into buying provisions and the to and fro from Theog, 14 kilometres away.
Hari Das Thakur, 62, retired from government service in 2021. He now runs a tea stall to survive.
“This is a very serious problem,” he told Newslaundry. “The CM says that it was Congress that brought in NPS. But Congress was forced to do it because of the BJP government at the Centre led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.”
Thakur added that one of his former colleagues was recruited into the government before April 2004. “He gets a pension of Rs 13,000. How is that fair?”
Thakur was transparent about how he intends to get out of post retirement poverty. “The BJP has not been trustworthy about OPS,” he smiled. “But the Congress is.”
In the election year, the NPSEA raised its decibels and became a pressure group. But there are others, who bat for OPS, but are affiliated to the BJP, and so carry a rather dissonant position.
Kishan Thakur, 72, is one of them. Between 2000 and 2011, Thakur was the Himachal president of the Class IV Employees Association – a collective of peons, sweepers, guards, among others, employed with the government. A resident of Shanan village outside Shimla, he’s also a local BJP functionary.
“I fought for OPS when I was part of the association,” Thakur told Newslaundry. “In fact, I still want OPS for those who are covered under the NPS.”
How does he reconcile that with the rickety position of his party on the issue? “The BJP government has tried a lot, believe me,” he remarked. “But it is only the Centre that can change this. The state government cannot bring back OPS.”
Kishan Thakur, 72, is a BJP functionary who wants OPS.
Thakur said that since the country was reeling from the economic impact of Covid, better pension can only come from better health of the government treasury. “We’re in a precarious economic state,” he added. “And if Himachal gets OPS, all other states would want it too, putting more stress on our economy. I think we should put the nation before the state.”
Thakur himself is covered under the OPS and receives a monthly sum of Rs 25,000. I asked him if he would take the same stance if he was, say, covered under the NPS, collecting only a fraction of his current pension. He only smiled.
Pictures by Ayush Tiwari.
Update at 10 am, Nov 7: The headline of this report was changed.