Military Medical Boards and Disability Pensions

The present issue relating to ‘disability pensions to senior officers’ is only a part of the bigger problem and hence must be reviewed and tackled holistically to address all intricately linked issues that have been adversely affecting the quality of our military leadership.

Military Medical Boards and Disability Pensions

A key argument put forth by the 7CPC for reduced military disability pension is the steady rise in the number of senior officers claiming disabilities. The story by Col Ajai Shukla (Retd) in Business Standard’s New Delhi edition on Oct 18, is based on a letter from Lt Gen BK Chopra, the Director General Armed Forces Medical Services (DGAFMS), who retired in June 2016, to the then Defence Secretary Radha Krishna Mathur.

This letter states that ‘Disability Pensions’ have become an easy and attractive source of tax-free supplementary income for senior officers. The DGAFMS complained that senior generals misuse their position and influence to be placed in low medical classification few months before their superannuation.

Gen Chopra suggests, that tax exemption related to disability pension should be removed. The 7CPC, noting this trend, has recommended that disability pensions be calculated through a ‘slab system’ that effectively lowers benefits for most pensioners, including officers, junior commissioned officers (JCOs) and other ranks (ORs).

Gen Chopra confirmed to Business Standard that it was his intention to reduce the pressure from generals on his doctors, not to strip away disability benefits from lower ranks, as has happened after the government implemented the pay commission recommendations! He states that he never questioned the payment of disability benefits to lower ranks and soldiers as they are not in a position to influence the medical boards anyway.

The letter suggests that medical boards of senior officers be held in facilities located away from where they are exercising command to minimize influence. Gen Chopra’s letter was circulated by the MoD to the three service chiefs for comments and suggestions, but they ruled out changing the system of medical boards.

Considering this, the government is learned to be considering ways of tightening up medical boards for senior military officers, including by holding them in reputed civil hospitals rather than in military facilities.

Maj Navdeep Singh, a former TA officer and lawyer, in a separate article carried on this issue, methodically placed detailed counter perspectives against each of the issues raised in the DGAFMS letter, trying to debunk the ‘unethical’ perception that was generated towards the Generals. While agreeing with some of the DGAFMS recommendations – like holding medical boards at a neutral hospitals and not military medical facilities – he castigated the top military doctor for going beyond his brief by addressing the letter to the Defence Secretary and not the IDS HQ and failing to understand that certain medical disabilities can be incurred towards the end of one’s retirement, due to prolonged military service conditions.

What Veterans have to Say...

Maj Gen SG Vombatkere (Retd)

In the past officers used to take pride in maintaining ourselves fit and healthy. Reporting sick was considered inferior for an officer, and this helped maintain fitness and prevent malingering among JCOs and OR. Of course, even in those times, there were senior officers known to influence the medicos particularly around ‘ACR time’, even when they were middle-level officers. Their unfitness was evident to all and they went to great lengths to not get medically downgraded so as not to ‘miss the board’. But it was not epidemic as it appears to be now. So, this is the quality of our leadership ‘in general’ in present times!

The ex-DGAFMS (Lt Gen BK Chopra) writes that medical officers were hard put to resist influence of senior officers (of all three services, of course). One wonders what was/is the quid pro quo offered/demanded between the superannuating officer and the MO for registering a disability or getting a higher percentage of disability when there is none.

Air Cmde SN Bal (Retd)

Reading the Col Ajai Shukla’s article and assuming it could be true, I can only hang my head in shame.

Any system sometimes will be abused so long as humans are not infallible. The military recruits humans from civvies street – unfortunately some rotten eggs do reach the top ranks and abuse the system. While this does not make all Faujis black, it makes a strong case to punish those who are found guilty.

It must never be forgotten that pension is subject to good conduct – willfully and shamelessly abusing the system cannot be a shining example of it. If Faujis are expected to be role models, then their conduct must be unimpeachable. Only exemplary punishment can protect those others who are true to the salt.

While I am all for the Faujis to be respected (where proved respectable), I would like to see some of those who break the rules willfully (irrespective of rank) to be deprived of their pensions. They have defrauded the taxpayer who gives up so much to keep these officers in comfort. This must be done without remorse. Any downgrading of categories for disability pension must be done by three independent medical boards - and with due care and attention.

Col Parmesh ‘Royal’ Mehrishi (Retd)

  • The trend is related to ‘I-Me-Myself’ syndrome kicked in when the office of the COAS itself got tainted with issues like ‘Line of Succession’, ‘Medical Disability of COAS’, Adarsh Scam etc.
  • A great disservice is being done to genuine cases because they will be looked at through suspicion.
  • Senior officers want to have their cake & eat it too. They manipulate to rise to the top of the pyramid, seek PVSMs and AVSMs, and before retirement become disabled to seek benefits of ‘Disability Pension’ and related IT exemption.
  • An odd case at this level could be genuine (medical history needs to be traced & scrutinized). Rest all are taking the system for a ride.

The Way Forward

  • At the level of Brigadier and above, only BC to be considered by a medical board for disability.
  • All cases of end of tenure category/disability prior to retirement of Generals to be vetted in Delhi by RR and in case of any doubt raised, to be assessed by an independent medical board comprising of at least one doctor from AIIMS.
  • Generals to give an signed affidavit that should their medical disability be found unjustified even 5 years post retirement, they will have to pay a penalty equal to Disability Pension drawn + Bank Interest in one lump sum or forfeit their pension.
  • All cases of faking by senior officers of their Disability to be taught as case study (black demo) in IMA/NDA/OTA.

Rear Admiral Vineet Bakhshi (Retd)

This is suggestive of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If there are malafide cases, they need to be dealt with accordingly. By inducting outside medical representatives, we cast a slur on and slight our very fine medical fraternity. How can a doctor be pressurized to downgrade a senior officer?  After all, it is a Board which assesses the condition. If it is happening, it needs to be rectified.

The reasons advanced to reduce pension based on a single letter can at best be termed frivolous, yet taken cognizance of by the government. Strange, we now have three-star whistle blowers, who blow the whistle when it's time to leave the service!

It has also been brought out that DGAFMS had issued some orders/advisories on restrictions on peace time disability pensions which are in contravention of legal guidelines. Since these impact the dues of officers and soldiers, I wonder if they were examined by the concerned Pay and Pensions Directorate and the JAG. If not, Service HQ may consider examining them.

Gp Capt Johnson Chacko (Retd)

The government probably wanted to reduce capital outflow of budget on account of ‘Disability Pensions’, with a view to utilize this money saved for developmental activities. Thus the doctors would be directed to minimize award of disabilities, or face adverse consequences on their promotion. The obvious result is that doctors minimize disability cases by granting only obvious cases and overlooking doubtful ones.

The senior officers have probably been accepting this state of affairs and even granted themselves disability benefits, giving up the IMA Chetwode motto of ‘welfare of those whom they command’. In any case, only the pliable are promoted since all senior promotions are approved by the MoD. The rigid or those who are steadfast in ensuring welfare of those they command, don't get promoted.

Long back, medical board of civil aviation pilots used to be conducted by civil doctors. There was massive corruption as pilots earned lot of money. Hence, the doctors cleared the pilots, compromising passenger safety. There onwards, medical boards of civil pilots were held by Air Force medical establishments like CME and IAM, within a stipulated time frame to prevent corruption. Subjecting senior officers to civil medical exams only encourage corruption.

The disability of soldiers can never be equated with civilians. One can’t even equate their professions and arrive at a common pay matrix, just as one can't equate the legislative (MPs and MLAs) with the judiciary or bureaucracy. Military cannot be equated with bureaucracy.

Slashing of disability pension of those who deserve it and the minuscule few who get it is surely not a solution. The DGAFMS who wrote that his medical fraternity couldn't resist pressure of their senior officers and hence were succumbing to granting them disabilities don't deserve to be officers, much less doctors!

Cdr Mukund Yeolekar (Retd)

There are two aspects to be tackled:  The fact that senior officers do commit acts of impropriety and ‘How is the above matter to be handled and curbed within the services?

I have brought out in the book ‘A Campaign called Victory India’ that these acts of dishonesty and defrauding the government are learnt by officers post basic training, during their ‘active service’ by emulating particularly their seniors. I do not think that these traits can be clearly and unambiguously detected during their five days of SSB selection process.

Neither do they learn these things during their grueling training period. So, if a senior officer has gotten himself declared with a disability, he must have done so because it was a prevalent practice and as a result of the ‘Why not me?’ syndrome.

It must be realized that over 30 years, he has seen umpteen cases of moral turpitude. He knows he cannot do much about it except prevent it at his level. There is also the influence on the armed forces from the society from which they are no more insulated as before in the sixties or seventies. When the time comes for an officer to be honest, there is a chance that he succumbs to temptation to make some extra money.

This degrading in values happens over a period of several decades and it is difficult to pin point when and who was the culprit. The downward slide in moral values has to be stemmed jointly and individually. There must be consensus among all stakeholders regarding genesis of the problem, the solution and way ahead. There should be a visionary, perhaps a former uncontroversial Chief who can lead the Armed Forces towards a clean moral environment.

The second aspect is how did the DGAFMS write to Defence Secretary? He should have approached the respective service chief or the Chairman, COSC. This problem should be sorted out in-house and armed forces should not be subject to scrutiny by the bureaucrats or politicians, neither of whom are totally clean. The letter shows the services in poor light, especially at the senior level and erodes the respect among the junior ranks.

An Imperative Need for Holistic Review and Reforms

In these times of adverse publicity for the Indian armed forces, the issue of ‘disability pensions to senior officers’, if true, sends negative signals. Interestingly however, the present controversy re-enforces and validates many of our past claims documented, in the ‘Victory India Trilogy’ (2012-16) of which our military hierarchy, including Defence Minister and COSC is aware of. The causes behind the steady deterioration in the quality of our military leadership are amply revealed, along with the solutions.

The present issue relating to ‘disability pensions to senior officers’ is only a part of the bigger problem and hence must be reviewed and tackled holistically to address all intricately linked issues that have been adversely affecting the quality of our military leadership. As the fish rots from its head first, this rot must be arrested from the top, before it can cause any further damage to our sacred military institution – the only reliable and last bastion of the nation.

The concerned issue must be resolved cohesively by the Defence Minister, COSC and DGAFMS. More importantly, they must resolve many such intricately linked sensitive issues based on material from our ‘Victory India Anthology’.

(Views expressed are the respondents own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)

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