In February, defense minister Manohar Parrikar expressed concern over Army Headquarters filing appeals against disability benefits and pensions to service personnel. When will these brave men get their just desserts?
By Usha Rani Das
W hen Major Devender Pal Singh was carried to the field hospital in Kargil in 1999, he was a mass of bleeding tissues, had a ripped-open stomach and shrapnel embedded all over his body. When he was rushed to hospital, he was heavily bleeding and in a coma. Doctors at the field hospital battled to save his life. But the “Blade Runner of India” braved death and went on to create history by running 18 marathons and even made his mark in the Limca Book of Records with an amputated leg. But this is not the story of his courage; it is about his exploitation at the hands of those in power. Though Singh had “100 percent disabilities attributable and aggravated by military services”, when the medical board proceedings went to Army Headquarters, his disabilities were changed to 90 percent, deeming him fit by appearance. “It took me seven years to correct my disability pension,” Singh said.
Singh’s and other similar cases were the topic of a panel discussion on “Veterans Welfare: Continued Litigation in Disability Pensions” in the capital recently.
Disabled veterans and widows of soldiers continue to struggle for settlement of their disability benefits and pensions at various levels—with the government, their respective state governments and other related departments. On April 24, 2016, three soldiers lost their lives during a high-profile military exercise in Rajasthan. The deaths were attributed to excessive heat, injuries sustained while para-dropping from helicopters and snake bites. These were “non-attributable and non-aggravated by military services”. But the rules provide that in case a soldier is recruited in a fit medical condition, then any disability arising during service, except when caused due to his own illegality such as substance abuse, is deemed as having been affected by the service conditions.
But sadly, soldiers disabled by high stress levels and other ailments are released from service without regular pension or disability benefits. Benefits are refused on flimsy excuses such as “disability was incurred in a peace area” or due to “domestic stressors”. Despite Supreme Court orders, Army Headquarters has filed appeals against tribunals which have granted disability pension to the soldiers.
The last few years have seen increasing litigation by the Ministry of Defense (MoD) against present and former employees causing much heartburn. This has also eaten up the precious time of the government as proceedings take place in various courts and tribunals all over the country.
Take Naik Suraj Bhan who served in counter-insurgency operations ever since he enrolled in the army in 1993. In 2002, while he was deployed in a peace area, he fell and hurt his head, thereby developing psychiatric symptoms. He was then deployed in Operation Parakram (started in 2001 against the terrorist attack on parliament in December 2001) where his medical condition deteriorated and he was discharged from the army on medical grounds. His psychiatric condition (unspecified psychosis), said the army medical board, was “aggravated and connected with service”. With 40 percent disability, he was, under the rules, entitled for disability pension. However, when his claim papers were sent to Defense Accounts (Pensions) for disability pension, it was rejected on the ground that the disability was not connected with service. Bhan pointed out that as per law, the accounts branch can’t override the declaration of a medical board. But rather than releasing his pension, the army asked him to appear before an “Appeal Medical Board”, which this time declared his disability as “neither attributable to, nor aggravated by military service”.
However, according to the rules of the 5th Pay Commission which were valid then, an Appeal Medical Board can only be conducted if the person himself requests for it. Also, the said board cannot go into attributability/ aggravation/service-connection of disability but only go into the percentage of disability assessed. Bhan’s condition subsequently deteriorated and he was intermittently chained by villagers. Sadly, he couldn’t even be referred to a military hospital as he was a non-pensioner.
Finally, in 2009, when Bhan approached the Punjab & Haryana High Court, it was concluded that the disability pension was illegally denied to him. Despite this verdict, the MoD filed an appeal before a division bench of the HC. The High Court stayed this appeal. Three years later, the family received a notice from the Supreme Court that the MoD had challenged the order there. Thankfully, the apex court dismissed the MoD’s appeal on August 2, 2013.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a Rajya Sabha MP who raised this issue in parliament several times, said: “The current defense minister has expressed his clear disapproval against the process of making those who have served in the army fight this imaginary enemy in the MoD after having fought the real enemy.”
Havildar Luxman Kumar of the Dongra Scouts fought a similar case. He died of a head injury when he accidentally fell in a slippery area while deployed on the China border. Though the death was attributable to service by a court of inquiry, the ex-gratia amount of Rs. 10 lakh was refused to Daxina Kumari, his widow, on the pretext that when he died, he was not on duty but was answering nature’s call.
Worse is the case for cadets who are disabled and boarded out of training academies. They are granted a monthly “ex-gratia”, but not a disability pension. This nomenclature was conceptualized so that they could be prohibited from falling in the category of “ex-servicemen”. Incidentally, as per the Department of Personnel and Training, all disability pensioners are termed as ex-servicemen, but if cadets aren’t called that, they obviously can’t avail these facilities.
During an intense training at the Hemant Punia of the National Defence Academy (NDA) suffered an inter-vertebral disc injury. “I was told I had 30 percent injury which became 20 percent as I was unwilling to go in for a risky surgery” he said. He was only given “ex-gratia” and not pension.
Lokesh Saluja, a former cadet was boarded out of the NDA in 2007 for multiple fractures in his leg during training. India Legal asked him about the attitude of the authorities. “We have been fighting these issues since 1996. We don’t have the resources, financial or legal, to fight our cases” he said. From 1985 till 2015, there have been 350 cases of cadets being boarded out. Major Singh, who was part of the RM’s (Raksha Mantri’s) Expert Committee, said: “Those responsible should be held accountable financially because that is where it hits hard.”
In February 2014, Chandrasekhar wrote a strong letter to then defense minister AK Anthony urging the government’s withdrawal of a controversial order which had suggested that ex-servicemen who challenged the government on matters of pension and disability would have to fight their battles in the Supreme Court. The order was withdrawn.
Just when he thought the battle was won, Chandrasekhar noticed a surge of litigation cases. When the matter was brought to the notice of Manohar Parrikar, he constituted a committee of experts in July 2015 to review service and pension matters, including minimizing litigation and strengthening institutional mechanisms related to redressal of grievances. The committee subsequently submitted its report on November 24, 2015.
In February 2016, Parrikar expressed concern over the routine filing of appeals in the Supreme Court and issued guidelines for the defense services. But in April 2016, fresh instructions were issued by the MoD and Army Headquarters to government lawyers to start filing appeals in the Supreme Court against pension granted to disabled soldiers by the Armed Forces Tribunals and High Courts. Chandrasekhar once again wrote to the defense minister voicing his concern.
It waits to be seen if concern for our soldiers translates into something meaningful for them.