In quite an unprecedented turn of events, an 86-year-old woman from Kerala’s Idukki seems to have become the adversary of the ruling CPI(M) (Communist Party of India - Marxist) government. Mariyakutty, a daily wage labourer, is a beneficiary under the Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme, and she went on a ‘begging strike’ against the government after her pension stopped coming five months ago. She then approached the Kerala High Court, becoming a striking symbol of a commoner‘s agony when let down by the system and the government.
On Thursday, December 21, Justice Devan Ramachandran said that the government had enough money to spend on celebrations but not enough to help pensioners like Mariyakutty. The court further directed the government to take care of her food and medical bills so that she could survive Christmas. On Friday, December 22, the government claimed that Mariyakutty’s petition was politically motivated to malign the government and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Citing that defaming an 86-year-old woman was shocking, the HC heavily came down on the government. “She is a victim of the government’s iron fist. How will commoners survive in this state?” the HC asked.
As criticism intensified, the government withdrew its statement against Mariyakutty.
If one looks at how this saga has unfolded so far, it is quite clear that the government and the ruling party did not handle the issue well. They did not treat Mariyakutty, who is not only asking for her rights but also becoming a representative of many senior citizens similarly placed as her, with dignity.
After being deserted by her husband 36 years ago, Mariyakutty toiled hard to bring up her four children. Now, age and ailments do not allow her to fend for herself, and the pension amount of Rs 1,600 per month is her only source of sustenance. The amount has not been disbursed for the last five months, and she has no other means to buy medicines, food, or other essentials.
Mariyakutty had filed a representation before the government requesting to disburse her pension arrears, but all she received in return was apathy. Amidst the Chief Minister’s Nava Kerala Sadas tour, she went on a ‘begging strike’ with a begging bowl in her hand as a symbolic gesture to say that in the absence of welfare pensions coming through, citizens like her live in absolute misery in the state. “The government has money for celebrations and to fund ministers for their travels. They are blaming the Union and trying to evade responsibility. But people like me have no other means of income. They should cater to us, this is my right, and Chief Minister Pinarayi is accountable,” Mariyakutty said in a recent interview with a news channel.
The video of her protest went viral, inviting both solidarity and trolls. A section of the media including the CPI(M)’s mouthpiece Deshabhimani, wrongly accused her of having 1.5 acres of land in her name, along with two houses. It was also reported that her daughter was well-settled in Switzerland. She was further accused of joining hands with Congress to malign the ruling CPI(M) government and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Agonised by the smear campaign, Mariyakutty approached the local village officer, who after due process of inspection, issued a certificate stating that she didn’t own any assets. It was also learnt that her daughter resides in Adimali and not in Switzerland, and earns a living by selling lottery tickets.
On November 15, Deshabhimani put out a rejoinder and an apology for publishing fake news about her. "I am not going to sit idle as I want the 1.5 acres of the land that they claimed I have. While I will keep one acre for myself, they [those who claimed that she owned land] can keep the remaining. I will definitely file the case, as they portrayed me in a bad light. All I did was beg as I did not get my social welfare pension. Is begging for a living wrong? I want to know. This news was circulated across the country. I need compensation for insulting me and my kids, and I won’t back down without them compensating for it," said a determined Mariyakutty.
She then approached the High Court, and taking her plea into account, the HC, on Thursday, December 21, criticised the government for not catering to the needs of the octogenarian.
The Kerala government’s pleader submitted on December 22 that the state had not yet received the Union government’s share in the pension from April to August 2023. But despite putting the ailing octogenarian through such prolonged duress, the government went on to say that her intentions were malignant.
'Don't knock people's joy at Christmas time. The government's stand that the petition is politically motivated is heartbreaking. The petitioner may be assisted by the Legal Services Authority,” the HC said, warning the government to stop evading responsibility. The HC called the government’s response “shocking.” As many political observers have noted through these weeks, the dignity of citizens is of utmost priority.