Of late, there has been much publicity on how the Provident Fund department has smoothened matters out for employees and employers, much of it probably true for those willing to "do the needful". Otherwise, if you are the sort who insists on doing things the correct way, then it is still the same old same old. Whether this is a banking issue, as it involves our money, or whether this is a consumer issue, fact remains, the Provident Fund people come under the Ministry of Labour.
And that is where the issue really becomes complex. People with huge savings in Provident Fund are viewed as fair game in this context. The number of people whose Provident Fund amounts run into lakhs are now in lakhs. No longer is Provident Fund basis minimum payable - it is now often calculated on the total salary plus perquisites, and can very soon become a sizeable figure. This, to the usual babu in this Department, is like candy to a rat. Some examples.
My son, like many other young people of his age and generation, changes jobs frequently and therefore generates a whole range of new add-ons. Some companies evangelise a particular bank and branch, other companies insist on their own policies for various issues, but all of them have to open a Provident Fund account for him.
In the last eight years, my son has accomplished the amazing score of five Provident Fund accounts, with registered offices for those companies and therefore documentation at Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur, Chennai and now Gurgaon.
Theoretically, all five of these accounts, same person, same permanent account number (PAN), same father's and mother's name, same address, same everything, should have been linked by a single Universal Account Number (UAN). In reality, because of the huge difficulties faced in linking provident fund accounts through the UAN number, when shifting to a new job, and with time-based deadlines staring the new employers in the face on deposit, he ends up getting yet another UAN number at every new job.
Trying to put them together, subsequently, is the trap that the Employee's Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) sets for people in this sort of a situation.
For the EPFO, this takes weeks, months or more - totally up to them. The favourite tricks they use include -
a) Not sending the One Time Passcode (OTP)
b) Introducing a loop through the employer, making matters convoluted especially in the case of the ex-employer.
c) Insisting on physical presence at EPFO offices all over the country instead of closest to the employee.
Meanwhile, within less than three years, the amounts with the EPFO stop earning interest. Their method of calculating interest due is also, to put it mildly, very innovative. If you left in, for example, January, then you may see that your interest for the full financial year from April onwards is not added on!
In my case, over a mosaic career spread over a variety of professions, I have seen the following with Provident Fund. This includes demise of the Seaman's Provident Fund to a huge scam involving the best of cricketers and film stars, two episodes of top-end Indian corporates, which has subsidiaries that went bust swallowing up my provident fund and more recently, my own pension getting stuck in babu-land variously.
The big ticket here is that I refuse to bribe. There is or are no dearth of agents and consultants who are all over the place, on-site and online, who would probably cost me a percentage share of the proceeds less than a year's interest lost but the larger issue here is to first prove a point and then file the required Right to Information Applications as well as Public Grievances to try and fix the guilty.
What is the solution? I can think of only one - the money in Provident Fund should be converted into some sort of bonds or certificates, payable either on maturity relevant to the age of the person or at a discount if encashed in advance for whatever reason. Nothing else will work in the maze and trap that the EPFO Act has become.
(Veeresh Malik is an activist from Delhi, who continues to explore several things in life)