Though the “One Rank, One Pension” scheme for the armed forces has been announced, protests by ex-servicemen continue. Why are the government’s assurances like weak tea and lacking in sincerity?
By Bikram Vohra
MY aunt’s husband died on duty when his fighter aircraft crashed in Kalaikunda in 1962. His brother died in a military mountain climbing expedition 10 years later. My closest friend was killed while he was a test pilot in Bangalore in 1982. He was practicing maneuvers for a group of MPs expected to visit the next day and his jet failed to go into a climb. My father retired as a major-general and received the pension of an officer of that rank dated 1979 after 38 years of military service.
He and his three younger brothers all became generals, the only four brothers in any army in the world to attain that rank in the same corps. Between them, they served 150 years in the Indian army. One of them won the Mahavir Chakra.
All these individuals or their widows, as the case may be, received totally disparate pensions. Only the IAS enjoys the One Rank, One Pension (OROP) equality.
In 1973, when Indira Gandhi swooped in and happily gave off the fifth star to Sam Manekshaw but igno-red Air Chief Marshal PC Lal and Admiral SM Nanda within two years of the war with Pakistan, she scrapped the OROP concept.
For 37 years, the issue lay frozen and no one did it any reverence. It was in Dec-ember 2011 that the Koshyari Committee comprising 10 MPs was asked to make a report and did just that. Clear, concise and valid.
Unanimous.Give the armed forces OROP and balance out the pensions as per rank and length of service. There is no ambiguity about it. It was simply a matter of implementing it correctly.
Ironically, it still is ambiguous.
When Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar announced the implementation of the OROP, it was clear by his tepid effort that he really did not know what was going on. Any jubilation was short-circuited by the statement that those who took advantage of the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) would be outside the ambit of OROP. He had no clue that VRS is not an option in the armed forces. Officers have to complete 20 years before seeking premature retirement and at that mark, they have earned their pension. Although the faux pas was retracted later, it soured the waters totally. All other aspects that were open to debate became areas of suspicion. Paramount was the five-year review for pensions and the need for a wider panel to go into the implementation of OROP than merely one judge. The servicemen want three reps on that panel who know the military ethos.
These seem like reasonable demands, as does the call to ensure that one month should be the time limit and not six months for the panel to conclude its functions.
One tends to feel that the haphazard way in which the OROP was made public and the presence of three chiefs to flank Parrikar to give it authenticity was aimed at getting the ex-servicemen to disband and leave Jantar Mantar. That they saw through this intent compelled them to reject the offer in its present form. They know that once they pack up, they can really not come back because the movement will run out of gas. That gambit, if it was a ruse, has failed. These men will now try to up the pressure by calling for an all-India backing.
In the interim, while the government can gloat over having kept its promise, the cruel truth is that the veterans have not got off the Jantar Mantar stage.
There would be two schools of thought on this issue. One would say quite emphatically that the ex-servicemen are reaching out a bit more than is acceptable and getting touchy over technical glitches. The other school would say that the movement led by Major-General Satbir Singh has grave doubts about the confusion that the announcement has cau-sed and if, indeed, the technical points are minor, why not just unilaterally remove them? After all, why the resistance and why sour the cream before giving it?
If the government wished to score a point by clearing the decks on this issue, why is the protest not only still on but gathering nationwide momentum? The reason for this is that the assurances given of addressing the doubts raised are like weak tea and seem to be more in the realm of a fobbing off than a measure of sincerity.
For those who feel the government has done enough by accepting the concept of the OROP and announced its open-ended implementation sans any timeline, perhaps the case earlier in the week of Lance Naik Mohan Nath Goswami comes as a sad, yet stellar example, of valor. Goswami killed 10 insurgents in Kashmir in 10 days, but was killed himself on Day 11.
SEIZE THE MOMENT
Truth be told, this would be the ideal occasion for the government to show its much-heralded affection for its men and women in uniform and honor Goswami’s sacrifice with tangible offerings, including the highest medal for gallantry. There should be no delay in announcing ex-gratias and other emoluments because his death epitomizes the role of our soldiers, sailors and airmen in keeping the nation secure. Think for a moment how many lives Goswami saved because 10 insurgents were eliminated who were capable of causing havoc.
It is with dismay that while one talks of OROP, yet Goswami’s death is just a one-day news item. Politicians parade their affection for the uniform, but when it comes to honoring them, they baulk. On this canvas, the so-called green signal given to the OROP rings hollow. Nor is there any originality in this latest concession.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi integra-ted the OROP into his election promise, mentioned it on glaciers, in rallies and on INS Vikramaditya. At no stage were the codicils mentioned and till there is a deadline, the matter is moot. As it is already functional in the IAS, who needs a fresh interpretation? The veterans have grounds to feel there is deliberate foot-dragging on the issue and the attempt is populist for the present.
The second myth is the cost to the exchequer. It is not a crippling amount. The current defense budget is `2,46,727 crore and `10,000 crore (which will go in implementing OROP) is about four percent of it.
On the contrary, there is even no need to be concerned about the retrospect angle. Most of the senior ex-servicemen whose pension is at the low end of the scale having retired years ago, are, to put it bluntly, dead. A large majority of them are octogenarians. There is no huge mass of ex-soldiers out there seeking this upgrade in their salaries. That is a myth.
When the government announced OROP and labeled it historic, it specially offered benediction to war widows who were numbered at six lakh. How this number was arrived at is difficult to calibrate. It should be more in the region of 30,000 but needs clarification.
If there is a wave of rage, it is because of the disparity between the armed forces and their civil service compatriots. I have to quote a piece that was mysteriously sent to me with no byline: The IAS crafted the Pension Fixation Formula in such a manner that they are immune to any post-Pay Commission
disadvantage to the old retirees.
A few decades ago, the IAS “invented” a secret magic wand to make sure that they get OROP eternally and surreptitiously, but others don’t. This is how it was manipulated: The highest pay in the government currently is `80,000 fixed, called the Apex Scale (though it is not a scale in the true sense as it does not scale up). Only the three defense chiefs and the cabinet secretary get the higher fixed pay of `90,000. The invention of this concept of “Fixed” pay was meant to shield them forever from the ill-effects of the formula they devised for others.
It was contrived that the pension of the Apex Scale retirees would always be linked to whatever the revised Apex Scale is in future. Since most of the IAS/IFS officers retire in the Apex Scale, this decree eternally ensured OROP for this class. To meet any murmur to the stratagem, some Apex Scale peanuts were also flung at a few posts in some other services, including the defense forces. Army commanders and a large number of Lt Generals and their equivalents in the other two forces were also granted this privileged scale.
The main thrust has always been to ensure that no senior person gets less than a junior. That is common sense but currently this is not the situation.This lacuna is further exacerbated by the fact that though the law on OROP was settled by the Supreme Court seven years ago in the SPS Vains case, it was applied by the government only to the petitioner’s rank, i.e. major-general.
It defies logic because what it means is that every rank in the armed forces must petition the courts separately and seek relief or so the government would want. While retired IPS officers were practically granted OROP when they challenged the pension
fixation formula and are now in litigation with the government over it being implemented, the IAS cheerfully sail on, enjoying the benefit.
Herein lies the rub. Let’s repeat the mantra. If it is valid for the IAS, why is it not valid for the armed forces? “Why should old retirees get the same pension as new reti-rees? Why don’t they apply the same principle to their own class? Why should old retired secretaries get the same pension as newly retired secretaries? Doesn’t it speak of their double standards?” asks a brigadier.
Let’s leave aside all other considerations, including the sizeable gaps in temporary duty compensations, special sops for the ITBP, the BSF and the CRPF. What’s more, the privileges being given to persons who earn gallantry awards are better than what is being given to army personnel. A senior ex-serviceman said to me: “What is even more surprising is the fact that if an army man is on deputation with any force under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), he gets the same privileges that the MHA gives to CPOs (Central Police Organization). But if the award was earned under the Ministry of Defense (MoD), the privileges are less. Plus, all CPOs get temporary duty allowance and special disturbance allowance if they are employed in CI/CT (counter insurgency and counter terrorism) grid and if they carry out patrolling beyond some three km of the headquarters! No army guy can claim that, whereas most CPO persons file such claims as a routine!”
Even if we take all these issues and place them in cold storage and just seek the re-introduction of the OROP in its plainest form, we still find official resistance and that is what one cannot understand. By this inordinate half-hearted acceptance, the government has robbed the armed forces of the satisfaction of being given their just dues. It now looks like a tooth is being pulled out and even if the OROP is reinstated in full measure, the crockery of reluctance that it is served on makes it unpalatable.
When you renege on a promise and finally “surrender”, it not only spawns disenchantment but also generates bitterness that is often translated into more demands.
And while a government can think it “safe” to take liberty with retired service personnel, it fails to appreciate that those in service can feel the ripple effect. This is dangerous. You do not want those in active service to conclude they are merely tolerated. After all, they will also retire one day.
Much of the civilian indifference is bed-rocked in the history of peace. Those not in uniform find it easy to downplay the forces when security is not threatened. It has been 44 years since the last all-out war in 1971.
Such a large standing force in a time when weaponry has changed the paradigm produces the foolish notion that such a force is not needed. The truth is that not only is it needed, but it must be constantly combat-ready. Part of that readiness is morale and if morale droops, then the readiness is compromised.
Equally integral to this state of mind is the comfort derived from knowing that if anything happens to the soldier, his family will be looked after. In fact, one of the provisos should be the parity given to war widows in pensions. That makes good sense.
It is far too easy to forget that peace is predicated to a strong defense and there is no other deterrent quite like it. From the chill of Aksai Chin to Jalep La and Nathu La, from the heat of the desert in Rajasthan to the rugged terrain of the western front, from protecting our skies and our coastal waters, these men and women wear their uniform with pride. And every day, place their lives at risk.
Suffice to say the OROP per se is not only justified, it is so overdue that with every passing day, the schism gets wider. India cannot afford that.
Put a timeline on OROP implementation so that it wins itself some credibility.
When will the oldest war widow get the revised pension? When will the soldier without a limb find a swollen paycheck? When will the retired general from 20 years ago find parity with the general who retired yesterday? After the six months given to the judge to make his report and no limit on studying it? At the time of review after five years when this government may not even be in power? Next year? The year after?
No one has answer…because no answer has been given.
When does my aunt get her OROP pension…echo answers when.