Indian military: Nation owes you
by Surjit Singh on 23 Feb 2009 102 Comments

[On 21 Feb. 2009, scores of ex-servicemen, including officers, returned their medals to the government to protest non-implementation of the demand for “one rank, one pension” in the armed forces. This was the second protest after 8 Feb., when retired officers and jawans under the banner of Indian Ex-servicemen Movement surrendered their medals to the President, as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Sadly, Ms. Pratibha Patil found no time to meet the war heroes, and merely directed her staff to collect the medals. This studied disrespect for those who give up their lives for the country, so close on the heels of Mumbai 2008, perfectly mirrors the contempt in which the Sonia Gandhi-led UPA holds the nation and its people. It would be in the fitness of things if other political parties rise to the occasion and assure the veterans of a fair deal – Editor

The organizers of the rally [8 Feb.] have reason to be happy at the success of the event. The turnout was impressive, with a fair representation of high ranking retired officers, including a few hundred very senior officers, and a large number of war veterans surrendered the medals awarded to them for gallantry. But viewed in the overall perspective, this coercive form of protest is likely to lead to further disaffection amongst potential recruits for the military and the attractiveness of the armed forces as a career will plummet from its already abysmal level. Whichever way one looks at it, it is most unfortunate that veterans have been forced to take to the streets. For the military as well as the nation, it was a Black Sunday.  There is an urgent need to analyze the causes and effects of the series of demonstrations which culminated in the rally on 8 Feb. 2009.

An Introduction to One-Rank-One-Pension (OROP)

First, it is necessary to define OROP and its tortuous history. The officially accepted meaning of the term is: “OROP implies that soldiers of the same rank, who have rendered identical length of service, shall be granted equal pension, regardless of their date of retirement.”

This is a logical and legitimate quest of the veterans, and ex-servicemen have been seeking this dispensation ever since 1983. But for reasons buried in history, successive governments have not implemented this principle.

Back in 1985, when this demand first surfaced, there were more than twelve categories of pensioners depending upon their dates of retirement and certain options exercised by them. It was then that a high powered committee headed by Mr. K.P. Singh Deo coined the term OROP.

Over the next 13 years, these categories were rationalized in different phases, and the Fifth Pay Commission was finally able to reduce all pensioners to just two categories, the pre-1996 retirees and the post-Fifth Pay Commission pensioners. It was widely expected that the Sixth Pay Commission would either narrow the gap further or eliminate the difference altogether.

Shock meted out by the Sixth Pay Commission

In the run-up to elections to the current Lok Sabha, Congress expressed explicit support for OROP. On 23 November 2002, Ms Sonia Gandhi made a public declaration in the Sector 46 sports complex at Chandigarh that her party endorsed the OROP format. This was also part of the party Manifesto.

Later, the Common Minimum Programme of the UPA government contained some specific provisions for the welfare of ex-servicemen. Consequently, the veterans began to expect a fair deal. Imagine their plight when they discovered that what was meted out to them was just the opposite of what had been promised. The light at the end of the tunnel turned out to be the headlight of an approaching vehicle!

The Pay Commission rejected OROP as impracticable, and applied civilian rules to regulate military pensions. From two categories of pensioners, it became four: pre-1996; 1996 to 2005; 2006 to 1 Sept 2008 and post-Sept 2008 retirees. The veterans felt cheated and betrayed. The anomalies are so enormous that old soldiers are seething. To cite just two examples of the kind of ‘justice’ meted out by Mr. Justice Shrikrishna:

? A Havildar with 24 years service who retired in December 2005 receives Rs 5,239/-, while a Sepoy with only 17 years service who retired in February 2006 gets Rs 6,800/-

? A Lt Gen with 40 years service who commanded a Corps with more than 50,000 troops under his command and retired in December 2005 gets Rs 27,700/-, while a post-2006 retiree Col (TS) with only 26 years service, who led nothing more than a company with less than 100 soldiers, gets Rs 30,375/-.

The Fallout

Following the report of the Pay Commission, the veterans did what they could to reach out to the powers that be, namely the Defence Minister and some political leaders, but none made a firm commitment. When the pension letters were issued, they ran out of patience.

On 16 December 2008, they began a relay fast at Jantar Mantar. When the government ignored this peaceful protest, and with all other options closed, the veterans decided to express disenchantment through the surrender of their well earned medals. My civilian friends ask searching questions about the ongoing struggle, most notably: 

? Are the pensions so inadequate that veterans are driven to economic penury?

? Why did leaders of this movement not go to the Service Chiefs and leave it to them to obtain justice for their fraternity?

? If their case is strong, why do they not seek justice from the courts of law?

? Have civilian pensioners been granted OROP? If not, why should soldiers seek a special dispensation?

? How much will it cost to implement OROP?

Adequacy or Otherwise of Pensions

It would be incorrect to aver that veterans are starving. They are not. But in this age of ‘consumerism’ they and their offspring seek a quality of life which is denied them. Even more than the size of the pension packet, what hits them is the disparity in relative amounts admitted to them. When a Havildar finds that a Sepoy who was working under his command is getting more money, he cannot reconcile to this fact. This is an emotive issue: inequity hurts more than inadequacy. If the government does not have enough resources, every one should be given less. Why single out past pensioners?

Approaching the Service Chiefs

The veterans did knock at the doors of the Service Chiefs. However, our generals and admirals have no real authority in fixation of salaries and pensions. And it is not uncommon for government to ignore the most earnest suggestions of the chief of staff.

The Chiefs of Staff Committee had recommended that there should be a service member on the Pay Commission, as is the practice in several countries. This was not accepted. We have it on the authority of Admiral Arun Prakash, the then Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee went back to the government with a suggested list of serving and retired general officers; this second letter was not even acknowledged.

With this back ground, the veterans considered it unwise to embarrass the Chiefs who were busy fighting for the removal of anomalies in the salaries of serving soldiers.

Seeking Justice from the Courts of Law

Soldiers and veterans are law abiding citizens, and have full faith in our judicial process. But our experience with the judiciary is far from satisfactory; it seems to be heavily influenced by the government in power.

For instance, for reasons not relevant to this paper, the notional payscale granted to Maj. Generals by the Fifth Pay Commission was Rs 18,400-22,400/-. The pay of Brigadier (inclusive of rank pay, which was defined as basic pay for all purposes) was 19,100-20,450/-. Now, for the general officers in service this did not matter as they were promoted from Brigs and hence started at a higher point on the scale and drew pension at appropriate scales. But in respect of past pensioners, the government decreed that pre-1996 retirees would be granted pensions at the lowest level of the payscale. Thus, the pension of Maj.-Gen. was lower than that of Brig. Later, it was made equal.

Thus, the Maj.-Generals have been getting the pension of Brigadiers since 1996. The general officers protested and knocked at all doors, before exercising the court option. Below is a sequence of the ensuing events:

? In  2002, a group of retired Maj.-Gens. filed a writ petition in the High Court

? After a long and tortuous legal battle, they won the case in 2005

? Government of India challenged the judgment in the Supreme Court 

? On 8 Sept. 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the veterans and directed the Government to grant an appropriate pension, with arrears, within 90 days from the date of filing the petition 

? Just before the expiry of the said period the Government sought review of the judgment on the plea that some fresh ‘facts’ had come to light

? Now, as on 15 Feb 2009, nothing is known of the case. Several affected general officers have died and the Government seems to be  waiting for the problem to die a ‘ natural’ death (pun intended)

? As a footnote to the above sordid story, I have learnt that the stepping up of the generals’ pension did not apply to family pensions. Thus the widow of a Maj.-Gen. would actually receive less pension than the spouse of a Brig., unless she files an appeal. Such anomalies would be unique in the annals of military history of wage structures!

Do civilian pensioners receive OROP?

Those civilians who are in receipt of “fixed salaries” are granted OROP. But a majority of civilian pensioners do not get this benefit. However, there is a striking difference in their ages of retirement. While all civilians retire at 60, soldiers begin to be separated at an age as young as 35, to maintain a youthful age profile. Apart from this, there are several other conditions of service like hazard, risk, stringent medical standards and strict disciplinary code which distinguish the soldiers, service calling for an exclusive pension structure. It is for this reason that until the third pay commission the pensions of the soldiers were based on rank and the length of service and not linked with the pay drawn at the time of retirement. The Fourth Pay Commission (1983-86) disturbed this time tested format, and the veterans have been protesting ever since then.

The cost of granting OROP

We do not have access to official statistics, but it is informally learnt that OROP will entail an additional expenditure of Rs. 2,200/- crores per annum. This will diminish with each passing year as pre-2006 pensioners can only decrease in number. Fresh retirees will be given the revised pensions anyway.

Pension is NOT the root cause of this agitation

OROP is the overt and manifest cause of the veterans’ stir. When I spoke to friends during the rally, it became apparent that there is widespread anger against the manner in which we soldiers are treated, both in service and after retirement by civil servants. The so-called civilian control over the military has become so overbearing that it is stifling to work in South Block. For every little thing, the generals need ‘government approval’ which takes the same time as the court case cited above.

Why I am unable to motivate young men of today to join the military

My father was a soldier, and so was my father-in-law. Nearly all my brothers and cousins wrote the examinations for joining military academies before seeking other avenues. At a rough count, three-fourths of my close relatives are in the defense services. In sharp contrast, only one family member from the next generation in our extended family went to the Academy, and that too fifteen years ago. As of now, not a single lad is headed towards the military way of life. It saddens me. But when I look back, I find that the army of yesteryears was a different ball game altogether. Let me recount a small incident.

Our father was posted in the Far East during the Second World War. In those days there was an acute shortage of kerosene oil, so it was rationed. Our mother complained that since there was no male member in the house, she could not collect her rations. The response of the civil authorities to my father’s letter was instantaneous. A man was detailed to deliver not only the kerosene rations but all other essential items at the doorstep of the families of all soldiers. All through my childhood, we believed that soldiers had a special place in the land. This motivated me to join the army.

Summing up

The Sixth Pay Commission has done inestimable damage to civil-military relations. The protest rallies are actually a manifestation of the seething anger which many veterans carry as baggage accumulated during service. We all seem to have very bitter memories of the shoddy treatment meted out to us by civil servants.

Over the years, the quality of the ‘administrative’ service rendered by bureaucrats has deteriorated. Forty years ago, when I was a young officer, senior civil servants were invited as guests. I was once detailed to ‘escort’ a civilian dignitary from the Ministry, and found him extremely knowledgeable and dignified. He was worthy of his post and status. We have come a long way since; I have not seen any civilian officer at social gatherings, service messes or clubs. Present day bureaucrats seem to demand respect without having earned it through performance and commitment to service. The functioning of the Sixth Pay Commission indicates shoddy staff work. If this is how other sections of the Ministry are functioning, God bless us. Civil servants should be seen as friends, not masters of soldiers serving in South Block.             

Maj. Gen. Surjit Singh, AVSM, VSM, is an army veteran  

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