An environment of positivity needs to be inculcated towards our men and women in uniform. All stakeholders must shun rigidity, sit together and work towards smooth and early implementation by ironing out the creases without any delay
The very recent assurance on "One Rank One Pension", or OROP as it is colloquially known, by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar should calm some nerves. The Minister, by now known for his sensitive and humane approach, reassured military veterans that he staunchly stood behind the promise made by the Government on the subject time and again, including by the Prime Minister. A case is hence definitely made out not to read too much into the negativity floating around in the environment on the subject.
Why OROP for soldiers some may ask! Common sense is all that is required to fathom that the current cost of living equally applies to a military veteran who retired say 15 years back vis-a-vis the one who retires today in the same rank. When both go out to the grocer, they pay the same price for atta that they buy, they pay the same for the vegetables, which feed their families, they are also expected to maintain a similar level of daily life, so why the sharp difference in their pensions?
Precisely, this is the reason why the concept OROP, came into inception. At a rudimentary level, it simply means similar pension for similar rank for an equal length of service. It is not only desirable, but also highly logical. Agreeable suggestion is that ideally it must be applied to all services under the government, military or otherwise. However, we do not live in an ideal world and till that final objective is achieved for all other classes of employees, military veterans do have a case for favourable consideration as explained in the succeeding lines.
As would be expected in any democracy, departments concerned or dealing with the Armed Forces of most nations strongly stand behind their men and women in uniform and plead for the best of benefits from their respective governments. However, in our country, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), until recently, was legendary in always taking an adversarial stand against the profession of arms.
And not straying from this dubious legacy, it were elements of the same Ministry that always opposed the grant of OROP to military veterans repeatedly citing financial, administrative and legal impediments for resisting the concept, and in the bargain, attempting not only to mislead and misguide the highest of political executive, but even Parliamentary Committees.
While financial constraints are well understood and appreciated, there is never too high a price to pay for those who protect us at the peril of their lives. Under the garb of administrative constraints, it was pointed out by the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (DESW) of the MoD to a Parliamentary Committee in 2011 (Koshyari Committee) that OROP was not feasible to implement since documents of military personnel are weeded out after 25 years- an incorrect averment, to say the least. In reality, it is the documents of non-pensioners that are weeded out in 25 years as per Regulation 595 of the Regulations for the Army.
Moreover, the Pension Payment Orders (PPOs) of pensioners, which contain all relevant details such as the rank last held and the length of service are retained during the lifetime of each pensioner and then during the lifetime of the family pensioner in case of demise of the former. These details, which are the only two basic requirements for OROP, are also available in a document called "Long Roll", which is maintained in perpetuity in terms of Regulation 592 of the Regulations for the Army.
Of course, a complaint to the then Defence Minister related to false statements by representatives of the MoD to the Parliamentary Committee and also to Constitutional Courts did not elicit any action whatsoever, as expected. Even the legal constraints pointed out by the DESW repeatedly hold no ground since the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Maj Gen SPS Vains, being the latest on the subject, fully endorses the concept of OROP.
Another strange bogey historically put across by the establishment has been the imaginary fear that "other employees" would also start demanding OROP. This argument too is faulty at multiple levels.
Firstly, it is a fact that no civilian pensioners' body has ever opposed additional pension benefits to military veterans and mostly civilian peers have supported the cause, tacitly and even overtly.
Secondly, unique service conditions such as living away from the family in a strictly regimented, at times hazardous and highly stressful environment, maintaining two households on being posted away from family, being under a disciplinary code 24 hours a day, 365 days a year et al make an additional dispensation such as OROP all the more justified.
Thirdly, depending upon rank, soldiers start retiring at the age of 34, which is not the case in any other service including comrades of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) who also no doubt face tough service conditions.
Fourthly, civil employees are blessed with a much higher lifetime earning as compared to military employees and they also are fortunate to see multiple salary revisions through subsequent pay commissions.
Fifthly, a much higher system of calculating pensions remained applicable to the defence services till the third pay commission when it was abruptly discontinued and military pensioners were suddenly (broadly) equated with civilian pensioners in many aspects.
Sixthly, the fear of 'similar demands' also now does not hold much water since other employees (post-2004) are on a New (Contributory) Pension Scheme which is much different than the traditional pension system of the Government.
Seventhly, contrary to popular perception, and interestingly, the average life expectancy of military personnel and veterans is much lower than other civilian employees, especially at the lower ranks.
With a proactive Prime Minister, a sensitive Defence Minister and other former soldiers on Ministerial berths, the new Government has definitely given hope to defence pensioners in the well-known demands of the military community in issues such as OROP as well as other insidious matters such as the way disabled soldiers and military widows are treated by the system.
The new government, which now seems to be getting a grip of things, however must ensure that the political will in this regard is imposed and enforced with an iron fist from the top downwards towards the bottom and not the other way round.
The last few years have been witness to a deleterious culture whereby junior Section Officer and Under Secretary level officers were ruling the roost by initiating misleading noting sheets, which were approved till the very top without question.
The one-way imposition of appalling, illegal, illogical and negative policies hence emanated from below with the top brass merely affixing initials. The attitude must shift from 'how a thing cannot be done' to finding ways to move towards a constructive and positive foundation.
The Defence Accounts Department must also not be allowed to influence policy or present exaggerated figures by juggling with numbers as was seen in the last few years. The office of the Controller General of Defence Accounts (CGDA) is only responsible for accounts and auditing and must not be seen as the policy-maker as has been the case in the last few years wherein the MoD has been asking the former to draft policies and government letters related to pay, allowances and pensions of defence services.
Per chance, co-extensive with the proactive top brass in the government, the higher echelons of the military have also seen some changes including the newly appointed Adjutant General of the Army, who is expected to make a change with his sensitive and pragmatic approach.
It is a perfect opportunity for the defence services to work in tandem with the government to ameliorate the problems being faced by the veteran community. The fillip to the Veterans' Cell in the Army HQ, which is rendering excellent service, is a step in the right direction. It would in fact augur well for the system, if just like the DESW, the military too cleans up its act especially in its Personnel Services directorate and Record Offices, the elements of which are also ensconced in cobwebs of negativity and rigidity and who do not let the seniors in the chain of command look at issues with an optimistic vision.
File notings are framed in such a manner so as to ensure the elicitation of a negative decision. This attitude must change, so must the structure of initiating multiple litigation by the establishment against old veterans, disabled soldiers and military widows. Military veteran organisations too must not take extreme positions or bicker amongst themselves. In fact, the veteran community expects veteran organisations to play a beneficial role and facilitate a well-oiled overall veteran welfare machinery, bereft of politics.
The time is right, the leadership is optimal; however, it needs to be instilled and drilled into the authorities dealing with the welfare of soldiers that an environment of positivity needs to be inculcated towards our men and women in uniform. All stakeholders must shun rigidity, sit together and work towards smooth and early implementation by efficiently ironing out the creases without any delay. Friction and antagonism is not in national interest.
It is our obligation that we must rise to the occasion, aid and assist the current leadership in ensuring a better deal to our protectors. Issues concerning our veterans and also our serving soldiers have to be dealt with a caring, sympathetic, compassionate and sensitive approach and not in the environ of pessimism or with the spirit of hyper-technicality and hyper-legalese. It is time for all of us to salute our men and women in uniform who protect our freedom in this proud democracy, not with lip-service but with steps that facilitate them in day to day life.
(Major Navdeep Singh is a practicing Advocate in the Punjab & Haryana High Court and the Armed Forces Tribunal. He was also the founding President of the Armed Forces Tribunal Bar Association. He is a Member of the International Society for Military Law and the Law of War at Brussels)