The fast for justice being held by India’s ex-servicemen at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi and in over 50 other cities has now entered its third week. The protesting veterans are demanding the rollout of the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme, which has not been honoured by successive governments.
The quest of the veterans for OROP, a term coined by a Parliamentary committee headed by KP Singh Deo in 1983, goes back several decades. In 1973, while implementing the recommendations of the Third Pay Commission, the government reduced the pensions of armed forces personnel from 73% of the last pay drawn to 50%.
The concept of ‘military pension’, designed to provide monetary compensation for truncated service due to early retirement, was diluted. Soldiers, sailors and airmen opt to retire between 35 and 37 years of age when most of their family responsibilities are still ahead of them, while most of the officers retire at the age of 54.
Despite their discipline, dedication and talent, they find it difficult to get jobs.
Personnel in the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) like the BSF, CRPF, ITBP, CISF, SSB and the state police retire between the ages of 57 and 60 years. The Fifth Pay Commission had recommended that armed forces personnel be laterally transferred to the CAPFs after five to seven years of service.
This would enable the armed forces to maintain a young profile and reduce the pension bill of the government. However, the government of the day lacks the political will to push through this win-win measure.
Officers of the CAPFs and all other civilian officers (IAS, IFS, IPS, IRS) retire at the age of 60 years, while only 0.84% of armed forces officers make it to the rank of major general, who retire at 58. A still smaller number are lieutenant general and retire at 60. Incidentally, every IAS officer is routinely promoted to the position of joint secretary, considered equal to a major general.
The national consensus favours the implementation of OROP for the armed forces. The Congress-led UPA government gave a commitment to implement OROP and even allotted a sum of Rs 500 crore in the interim budget for FY 2014-15. Union finance minister Arun Jaitley doubled it to Rs1,000 crore when he presented the budget in July 2014.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi unequivocally promised to implement OROP while addressing the veterans at an election rally at Rewari in September 2013. However, in a surprise to 25 lakh veterans and three lakh widows, the prime minister recently said that it was a “complex” issue and that there were several definitions of OROP.
Veterans, however, agree to an unambiguous definition of OROP. In February 2014, the following definition of OROP was approved in a meeting chaired by the defence minister: “OROP implies that uniform pension be paid to the armed forces personnel retiring in the same rank with the same length of service, irrespective of their date of retirement and any future enhancement in the rates of pension be automatically passed on to the past pensioners.”
The recommendations made by the defence minister, in consultation with the chiefs of the armed forces and the veterans, are reportedly being opposed by the finance ministry on the grounds that the annual cost of Rs8,400 crore is unaffordable and that a similar demand may spring from the CAPFs. It appears that the issue might be referred to the Seventh Pay Commission for a ‘holistic’ overview.
Often, the personnel in CAPFs serve much longer than the ones in the armed forces, which means that they earn more increments and therefore must not be equated for pension. The additional expenditure on OROP is less than 10% of the pension bill of Rs88,521 crore for 2015-16, which is much less than other subsidies.
Hence, the recommendation of referring the issue to the Seventh Pay Commission is seen as an insidious plot to scuttle the OROP scheme.
Civil-military relations in India have a troubled past and any attempt to indefinitely delay a long-pending welfare measure will only aggravate the situation.
As it is, the serving and retired members of the armed forces feel wronged at having been deprived of their dues in several cases in the past, including the ‘rank pay’ case, 36 pending anomalies in the implementation of the awards of the Fifth and the Sixth Pay Commissions, and the withholding of non-functional upgradation (NFU) of pay for officers denied promotion for lack of vacancies.
Also, the ministry of defence has repeatedly appealed against the court judgements that favour the veterans and soldiers’ widows — often contesting that the award of paltry sums, even as the cost of litigation exceeds the amount at stake.
The government must take note of the impact of the prolonged delay in the implementation of OROP on morale — not only of the veterans, but also of the serving soldiers; it may also affect many second or third generation soldiers who are witness to the sad plight of those before them.
The day a soldier takes his oath, he undertakes to selflessly serve his nation and even make the supreme sacrifice when necessary. He swears allegiance to Naam, Namak, Nishan and has never faltered.
In turn, the nation’s covenant is that no effort will be spared to look after his welfare and that of his family. Addressing the United States servicemen some years ago, US President Barack Obama said, “…when you take off the uniform, we will serve you as well as you’ve served us — because no one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job, or a roof over their heads, or the care that they need when they come home.”
Indian veterans also need to be given a similar assurance, but one that is credible.
Gurmeet Kanwal is an army veteran and a Delhi-based strategic analyst
(The views expressed are personal)