"Concerned about aging populations and retirement preparation? Consider how India's National Pension System can inform supplementary retirement savings plans.”
Supplementary retirement savings plans can provide security and stability for older people who no longer have a steady paycheck — and India's National Pension System (NPS) aims to do just that. NPS is a supplementary Defined Contribution pension plan, and subscription to the scheme is purely voluntary in nature. Like most of the world, India's population is aging, and lifespans are increasing. As a result of improved health and sanitation conditions, the global life expectancy is forecast to increase from an average of 65 years in 1990 to 77 years by 2050.1
For most people, living longer means more non-working years to enjoy. But for growing numbers of people around the world, maintaining enough income to live comfortably during those non-working years is expected to be a challenge. Not only are most older people no longer earning income, but as the years advance, the cost of living and inflation continue to increase. As government leaders around the world consider ways to help citizens prepare for retirement, they can look to India's NPS as a model for boosting retirement savings and helping aging workers avoid poverty during old age.
The Basics of India's National Pension System
In 2004, the Indian government launched its National Pension System with the goal of providing retirement income to its citizens.2 The system aims to institute pension reform and foster the habit of saving for retirement.
Initially, the program was made available for government employees only, but in 2009, NPS became available on a supplementary basis for all Indian citizens between the ages of 18 and 60. A Tier I NPS account (a mandatory account offering tax benefits) is designed in such a way that it discourages early withdrawal until the account owner reaches retirement age. If the account owner intends to withdraw before retirement age, they are allowed to withdraw only 20%, and the balance has to be used to purchase annuity. The NPS offers a decent tax benefit for its participants — contributions are made before taxes — but a portion of withdrawals are subject to taxes.
On reaching the retirement age, one can withdraw 60% of accumulations, which are tax free, and the balance of 40% has to be utilized to purchase annuity from approved annuity providers. One can defer the withdrawal and stay invested until the age of 70 or continue to make fresh contributions, if desired.
Tier II NPS accounts provide voluntary savings options without stiff exit penalties or lock-ins. There is a proposal to provide some tax benefits under Tier II NPS, which would require a lock-in period of three years; however, this proposal is yet to be confirmed.
Since the launch of the system, the Indian government has created additional social security programs to encourage retirement saving, especially among the working poor. In 2010, the government's Swavalamban Scheme committed to depositing 1,000 rupees into the accounts of each saver who contributed 1,000 to 12,000 rupees into their own account annually and was not covered by a government or employer pension. But in 2015, that plan was scrapped in favor of the Atal Pension Yojana (APY), which guarantees defined pension distributions during retirement for savers who meet certain qualifications based on their contributions. APY also offered a government contribution of 50% of the saver's total contribution or 1,000 rupees per year, whichever is lower, for a period of five years (from 2015 to 2020).
India's NPS has gone through a few iterations and continues to evolve, but the plan is helping to boost retirement savings among Indian citizens. It's also shifting citizens' expectations: Instead of relying on younger family members to support them in their old age, many are now adjusting their savings and preparing to support themselves in their retirement years.
On top of that, NPS is one of the cheapest investment products. Overall costs of the NPS are far lower than those of other products, and it is perhaps the cheapest pension product available.
3 Lessons You Can Learn From India's Model
For organizational leaders around the world, India's experiment in providing a national pension program for all its citizens offers a number of valuable lessons.
1. Unsustainable National Debt Requires New Solutions
Long before the NPS was launched, India's federal and state government employees were covered by a tax-funded defined benefit pension program that provided a 50% replacement wage at retirement with an inflation-linked adjustment. In the mid-1980s, this program cost the country less than $0.5 billion annually, but by 2006, with people living longer, the price tag jumped to more than $600 billion per year.3
Maintaining the program was unsustainable, and leaders realized they needed to develop a replacement program to ensure successful retirements for future workers and protect the nation's finances. Since the launch of NPS, all new government employees have been enrolled in it, fostering a responsibility among workers to prepare for their own retirement and protecting the government from continuing to run up unsustainable pension debt.
2. Tax Advantages Are Key for Supplementary Retirement Savings Plans
Most participants choose to invest in the NPS due to the tax benefits. However, some Indian citizens report that they did not opt for participating in the NPS as they perceived that some mutual fund instruments and private retirement savings vehicles have greater potential to beat the market and also provide better tax benefits.
In order to encourage citizens and promote NPS, the government developed three categories of tax-saving options. The third of these options is exclusively for salaried employees whose contributions are made through the corporate model of NPS. All three categories can be availed together and exclusive of each other.
Moreover, there was a recent relaxation in the tax-free withdrawal limit of corpus allowed at the time of retirement (from an earlier limit of 40% of corpus to 60% of corpus). Originally, though 60% was allowed to be withdrawn, the balance of 20% was taxed at normal rates, and making it entirely tax free has made it even more attractive.
While a few senior executives may have access to other retirement savings plans, including employer-sponsored Defined Contribution superannuation plans, most of the population (particularly among the working class) do not have access to other retirement savings plans, and hence, the tax advantages inherent in NPS are crucial encouragement for them to save for retirement.
3. Citizens Need Education About the Model's Benefits
While the NPS offers a number of benefits to savers, participation rates remain relatively low.4 Some respondents to a recent survey revealed that not understanding the importance of saving and the advantages of compounding interest could have influenced their choice to stay out.
NPS leaders have used a variety of methods for communicating and educating the population about the system. For instance, pilot programs staged in two different geographic areas hosted workshops, meetings and camps targeting unorganized sector workers and key stakeholders. Information was also distributed through cable television networks, radio, mobile publicity vans, seminars and road shows.
India continues to measure the success of its pension program and may make more changes in the future. Many countries are struggling to solve the potential challenge of poverty in old age, but the NPS in India is an encouraging step toward protecting the future for many of its citizens, and it's worth taking a look at the model for inspiration.
1. United Nations: Department of Economic and Social Affairs,"World Population Prospects — 2017 Revision: Global life expectancy," United Nations: Department of Public Information, June 21, 2017, https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/graphic/wpp2017-global-life-expectancy./
2. "National Pension System — Retirement Plan for All," National Portal of India, October 22, 2018, https://www.india.gov.in/spotlight/national-pension-system-retirement-plan-all.
3. Kim, Cheolsu; MacKellar, Landis; Galer, Russel G.; Bhardwaj, Guatam, "Implementing an Inclusive and Equitable Pension Reform," Asian Development Bank and Routledge, 2012, https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/29796/implementing-pension-reform-india.pdf.
4.Zaidi, Babar, "5 Reasons Why Investors Stay Away From NPS. But Should You?" The Economic Times, December 27, 2018, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/wealth/invest/5-reasons-why-investors-stay-away-from-nps-but-should-you/articleshow/61890679.cms.