As the last rays of the day bathed the historic Jantar Mantar, teardrops glistened on the weather-beaten face of Mahendar Singh.
The 81-year-old veteran, a toughened former soldier who took part in the 1962 Sino-Indian and 1965 Indo-Pak wars, is not given to showing his sentiments easily, at least not in public. But this is a different battle he is fighting and it has turned to be emotionally draining.
Singh was narrating his chance encounter with a fellow-soldier Ram Singh, at the Old Delhi railway station a couple of years ago.
“He was on the platform with a begging bowl in his hands,” the veteran told Hindustan Times at the site of ex-servicemen’s agitation demanding implementation of a one-rank-one-pension (OROP) scheme.
“When I called out to him, he tried to hide. But I managed to catch up with Ram. He told me that both his son and wife had passed away and had nobody to live for. So he came to Delhi and was living on alms. I asked him to come and stay with me, but he vanished into the crowd,” added Singh who survives of a monthly pension of Rs 1,000.
For more than two months, ex-servicemen are pressing for uniform pension for defence personnel who retire in the same rank with the same length of service, irrespective of their date of retirement.
Ex-serviceman Mahendar Singh takes part in the OROP protest at Jantar Mantar. (Aniruddha Dhar/HT Photo)
Close to 22 lakh ex-servicemen and over six lakh war widows stand to be immediate beneficiaries of the scheme. Currently, the pension for ex-servicemen is based on the pay commission recommendations of the time when they had retired.
“After spending months in the snow-covered mountains, facing enemy bullets in the two wars, I along with 3,000 other sepoys were not called back to join the forces after 1965. I was given a pension of Rs 34 which later increased to Rs 1,000 now. But tell, me how am I supposed to live on that?” he asked.
To feed his four children and wife, the native of Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh had to work on the fields of a local landlord as a share cropper.
“Is it for this day that a soldier fights for the nation?” questioned Singh who claimed to have fought the war with China alongside social activist Anna Hazare, then an army truck driver.
Other retired soldiers like Singh had similar tales of penury.
72-year-old Hari Ram, who retired from services in 1979, said he was initially paid Rs 250 as pension which has now increased to Rs 3,500."I had to work as a labourer at my village in Haryana to feed my family of five. Our children were not born in air-conditioned hospitals, but on grass mats. Is this why we sacrificed our most productive years in the service of the nation?" he said, more frustrated than angry at the state of affairs.
Ex-servicemen at a protest over the OROP issue at Jantar Mantar. (Aniruddha Dhar/HT Photo)
The 26/11 hero-turned-Aam Aadmi Party MLA Surinder Singh, who met the veterans at the venue on Wednesday, said these soldiers deserve OROP because “other government staffers don’t retire at 35.”
“They (the government) talk about a 56-inch chest, but I can assure you that they can’t even survive at the warfront for 56 hours,” he added.
Singh was injured during the 2008 Mumbai terror attack that left had 164 people dead and more than 300 injured in the country’s financial capital.
“I took a bullet in my leg while fighting the militants. Soon, I was discharged from service on grounds of disability with a monthly pension of Rs 10,000. This is the reward a soldier gets from the government for showing courage.”