One Rank One Pension: Government credibility at stake
by Rijul Singh Uppal on 26 Aug 2015 12 Comments
That a strongman from the land of the Iron Man of India could not overcome the rot in the Lutyens framework after 15 months at the commanding heights of the polity is a sordid exposé of the entrenched interests that have made mal-governance the abiding story of India.


Four decades of sustained injustice to the Armed Forces, despite increasing claims made on them by the nation in times of war, insurgency, and serial natural calamities (Kashmir floods and Nepal earthquake being only the latest examples), have deepened disillusionment among veterans and their families. The veterans’ demand for One Rank One Pension (OROP) has been actively in the public domain for a decade and as political parties have paid lip service to it, it may justly be taken to be part of a national consensus.


Taking a bird’s eye view, we find that prior to 1973, One Rank One Pension (OROP) was the basis for determining the pension and benefits of the Armed Forces. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took the drastic step of terminating OROP after the Third Pay Commission. Since then, Veterans have been protesting. OROP essentially provides that persons retiring at the same rank get the same pension, provided their duration of service is also the same.


Another wound inflicted by the Third Pay Commission was reduction in the pension of the Armed Forces. Until then, the pension of defence personnel was 70 per cent of last pay drawn, in order to compensate for early retirement. The Commission bought it down to 50 per cent to bring it at par with that of the civil services – a clear case of the bureaucracy enhancing its powers at the cost of other services, without improving performance and delivery.


In the run up to the 2014 General Elections, OROP had become a serious issue because of the large constituency of veterans nationwide. The ruling Congress claimed it would implement OROP if returned to office, but was widely criticised for not having taken any positive steps while in power for a decade. The ruling party had remained unmoved even when veterans, in the thousands, returned their medals – the most prized possession of a soldier – to the President of India (Mrs Pratibha Patil) in protest against the treatment meted out to the nation’s sentinels.


In fact, during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure, government policies had the effect of sharp relegation of the Armed Forces’ pay grades and ranks, vis-à-vis the civilian services. The armed forces felt that non-functional upgradation (NFU) granted to other services undermined their honour, and perceived this to be the handiwork of a dominant bureaucracy. OROP now became an emotional issue.


The Koshyari Committee report blamed the bureaucracy for failure in implementation of OROP. It was only in its final year, when the challenge from the then Gujarat Chief Minister became palpable, that the UPA stirred and Defence Minister AK Antony announced the government’s commitment to OROP. But Anthony in his long tenure had done so much to undermine the morale of the armed forces (an issue outside the scope of this article) that he carried zero conviction with them. 


The Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, tapped into this four-decade-old angst by virtually kick-starting his campaign at a veterans rally in Rewari, Haryana. The turnout gave a major boost to his image nationwide, marking a watershed moment in his political trajectory, whose momentum propelled him into South Block.


After storming to power in May 2014, the Narendra Modi government announced it would implement OROP with effect from April 1, 2014 and that even if it did take some time to sort out the glitches, it would not matter as the cut-off date had been settled. What needs to be analysed now are the developments that have taken place since, which have undermined the credibility of the government – and particularly the Prime Minister – while spreading dismay and demoralisation amongst the veterans.


Under the existing system, pension is linked to last pay drawn at the time of retirement. Hence, the pension of a person retiring in 1993 would be different from that of someone retiring in 2015. Pay Commissions provide a percentage boost to those pensions and do not link past with present. In theory, this seems reasonable.


But, in the case of Armed forces, the jawans do not enjoy tenure at par with the civil services. A jawan generally retires in his mid-’30s at the peak of his youth and physical strength. These men are then unemployed and post-retirement jobs (usually short term commissions) are not easy to come by, even though the Services do what they can to help make placements.


Many experts have suggested that jawans, being still young and having full military training and discipline, can be laterally absorbed by the para-military and Central Police Forces, which are perennially short of manpower. This is a decision that can only be taken at the highest level, since it involves cadre moving from the purview of the Defence Ministry to organisations controlled by the Home Ministry. But it is not an insurmountable hurdle, and is worth considering as the need for para-military forces is increasing.


If this can be achieved and employment assured till the men reach normal retirement age, the government can henceforth link their pensions to the regular pension formula or National Pension Scheme and forego OROP. But till then, OROP is a must.


Some vested interests are trying to suggest that if OROP is implemented for the Armed forces, it must also be implemented for other civil and police services and the railways. That is plainly a diversionary tactic. It has not succeeded because personnel in these services have job security till they reach retirement age, and the rest of society has no patience with such duplicitous arguments.


When the BJP came to power in May 2014, the Prime Minister allotted both the Defence and Finance portfolios to Mr Arun Jaitley. One imagined this was the perfect opportunity to swiftly realise one major election pledge. Mr Jaitley could – indeed should – have formed a joint ministerial task force to resolve OROP within weeks, if not days.


Alas, it is now obvious that Mr Jaitley was never on the same page on OROP. As Defence Minister, he told a delegation of veterans to lower their demands, and wanted to refer OROP to a tribunal.


The Prime Minister then roped in Goa Chief Minister, Manohar Parrikar, to take charge of the Defence Portfolio. Mr Parrikar has been consistently pushing for OROP, but it is obvious that powerful forces are at work to scuttle OROP. In May this year, the Defence Minister emphatically stated that the OROP proposal was in the final stages; that his ministry has approved it and the Finance ministry will clear it in a few days.


But in July, he contradicted himself and said the issue involves more than one ministry, an obvious allusion to hurdles placed by the Finance ministry. This startled the nation as the entire additional cost is said to aggregate a mere Rs 8000 crore annually - just a little more than half of what the nation has saved in LPG subsidy with Direct Benefit Transfer in the past one year! With government capping more leakages, this amount is not difficult to find. Moreover, local economies will get a boost if veteran’s families have an additional ?8000 crore to spend annually.


The most unfortunate aspect of the OROP saga was that, after failing to make the announcement on August 15 as widely anticipated, the Prime Minister went to Bihar just two days later and announced a special package of Rs 1.25 lakh crore. OROP is not even a drop in the ocean before this stupendous sum. The close proximity of both dates seriously dented the Prime Minister’s image in large parts of the country, even among ordinary citizens, and calls for urgent remedial measures.


The failure to implement OROP is simply unfathomable. Since the cut-off date is clearly envisaged to be April 1, 2014, there is no question of gigantic arrears to be doled out.


There is little doubt that the Prime Minister is being wrongly advised or misguided on the issue. Mr Modi said his government was in talks and consultation regarding the definition of OROP; this suggests that the entire issue is being reopened rather than resolved. This is truly bizarre.


Mr Modi must know this is ultimately a political decision that he must take. It is for the bureaucracy to implement and is not a matter on which they can have a veto, as appears to be the case at present. The matter affects ex-servicemen and their families, but now it also impacts the prestige of the Prime Minister.


The author can be followed on twitter: @therijuluppal 

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