‘To have peace you must have intimate friends or outright enemies’ is wisdom from the ages. And I am recollecting it here in the context of our nation and its relationship with its soldiers. Soldiers do have an outright enemy only during wars. And they have not had one since 1971. So, their peace, when not at war, necessarily depend on intimate friends. And here is the rub. Since 2014, every year during Diwali, the Prime Minister of the nation does religiously take time out to be with soldiers, sharing sweets with them, exuding care and bonhomie.
But it is time some hard questions were asked: will the soldier who is fed sweets with the Prime Minister’s own hands be able to spend enough quality time with his family? Will he be able to send his children to good schools? Will he be able to provide enough security to his family back in his village while he is securing the nation in the most difficult terrains under the most trying conditions? The answer is a big no.
Even in peace locations, a soldier hardly gets family accommodation for about a year. And once his children start going to school, he has no choice but to forego even this little facility. Because of the problems of getting admission even in Kendriya Vidyalaya’s, if ever they are available both at his place of posting and within accessible distance from his village. Even these problems fade into insignificance when compared to the prospect of loss of employment (read, livelihood) when his commitments are at its peak, when he is in his thirties.
Till a few years back he used to get recruited at 16-17 years of age and serve for 15-17 years. The minimum age of recruitment was raised to 18 years only because of human rights considerations which barred non-adults from bearing arms.
"Now look at how the bureaucrats and politicians (MLAs, MPs and ministers) have given themselves OROP."
The proposal to re-employ them in civil, after a pre-release training cum reorientation, has been in the pipeline for ages but has not moved an inch from that stage, in all these years. This is one of the four requirements that has been projected by the Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement, spearheading the protest at Jantar Mantar since 2008.
Though currently only One Rank, One Pension (OROP) is making the headlines, the three other proposals include re-employment of released soldiers till 60 years of age, a Commission for the welfare of veteran soldiers on the lines of Women’s Commission, SC/ST Commission and Minority Commission and including representatives of veteran soldiers in all bodies dealing with veteran’s affairs.
While it is difficult to imagine why these simple proposals cannot be implemented, it is totally impossible to reconcile with the injustices perpetrated on soldiers, who, it can be said unequivocally, are the only ones who really perform their job on a do or die basis. It all had begun with India’s first Prime Minister, Nehru, who believed that the nation got its freedom through ahimsa and we could do without an army, at least not more than a ceremonial one.
He did not even learn any lesson from the military operations in J&K in 1947-48. When the then C-in-C, Gen Butcher, had approached him with a security plan for the newly independent nation, he had reported been dismissive. Gen Butcher put in his papers and returned to Britain.
And then came the debacle in 1962, when China just walked in up to Tezpur in the eastern sector and walked off. Our soldiers deployed on those borders were not even properly clothed, leave alone equipped and armed. Many died after resisting till the last man, last bullet. More died due to inclement weather.
Many army officers got court martialed. The Defence Minister resigned. But nothing has been heard of the then Defence Secretary, who even now is officially responsible for the defense of the nation. Videos are viral on social media of how Nehru failed to even use the available Air Force to stop the aggressors in their tracks.
Her father’s trauma prevented Indira Gandhi from repeating the mistake in 1971. She had wanted the then Chief of Army Staff, General S H F J Manekshaw, to resolve the Bangladesh crisis militarily in April that year. As Manekshaw himself repeated many times later, he had assured her of certain defeat then. He had even told her he would opt to resign than get the army into a no-win situation. The rest is history.
But politicians would eulogize Indira as Durga and condemn the soldier who crafted the historical victory. Sam, as he was popularly known as, was given the rank of a Field Marshal but denied the pay and perks that went with it. The arrears were given to him in his deathbed, on the intervention of the then President of India, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam in 2007.
Manekshaw is the only officer of the Indian Armed Forces who had been given the 5-star rank while in service. The other two were K M Cariappa, the first Indian Commander in Chief of free India, who was given the rank of Field Marshal in 1986, 33 years after his retirement and Arjan Singh Aulakh was given the rank of Marshal of the Air Force in 2002, 33 years after he had demitted the office of the Chief of Air Staff in 1969.
Since Field Marshals and their equivalents hold the office for life, they are entitled to pay and perks of that rank and not pension. But it took the government 36 years to take a decision on this. But even then, it was limited to the pay equivalent to the Service Chiefs only. And therein lies another rub.
The Service Chiefs were held equivalent to the Cabinet Secretary. (In the Warrant of Precedence, 2007, the Cabinet Secretary is at Serial 11 while the Service Chiefs are at Serial 12) But there is no military officer of the rank of Field Marshal or equivalent figuring in that list.
So, if a Field Marshal or equivalent must be placed in the list it will necessarily have to be at Ser 11 or above. And this would not be acceptable to the bureaucrats. It is the same reason why General Bipin Rawat has been appointed as the first Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) in the same rank as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS).
"General Bipin Rawat has been a disaster for the morale of the soldiers ever since he superseded two officers and took over as the Chief of Army Staff."
General Bipin Rawat has been a disaster for the morale of the soldiers ever since he superseded two officers and took over as the Chief of Army Staff. Even when the share of defence expenditure as a share of GDP had reduced to 2 percent, the level as in 1962, and defence preparedness had been languishing, he had been indulging in pettifogging on issues like free rations for officers in peace stations, taxing disability pension of soldiers etc.
Now, as in 1962, it was left to the Chinese to wake up both the bureaucrats and the
politicians from their slumber. Post Galwan, there is a spree on buying, off the shelf, items from personal arms and winter clothing to high altitude tents and drones at seller decided prices.
Even amidst this alarming situation, threatening the very integrity of the nation, and the debilitating pandemic, the office of the CDS has found time to move a proposal to increase the retirement age for soldiers, including officers up to the rank of Colonel, to 57 years, with the rider that the pension of those who opt to retire earlier will be reduced proportionately. The proposal is to give only 50 percent of 'entitled' pension to those who opt to retire after 20 years of service, with 35 years of service needed to get full pension.
The absurdity of the proposal needs no elaboration. The point is that as it stands the entitled pension is 50 percent of the last pay drawn. And if you retire at a lower rank or with lesser service you get only 50 percent of the pay you have drawn in that rank and with that service. Now it is this low pension that is sought to be further reduced by up to 50 percent. There is a piece of information that has gained ground after the veterans were forced to take to open form of protest at Jantar Mantar in 2008.
That is, post 1971 ops, when the 3rd Central Pay Commission (CPC) awards were implemented the pension of soldiers, which had been 70 percent of his last pay drawn (rightly so, because of his early age of retirement and no prospect for gainful employment thereafter) had been reduced to 50 percent on the ground of economic hardship.
But unknown to most soldiers, except may be to those at the top level of the hierarchy, the pension of civilians had been hiked from 33 percent to 50 percent. But that was not all. Full pension (50 percent of last pay drawn) would be available only to those who complete 33 years of service. In effect, most soldiers who retired as sepoys with 15 years of service, got only less than 25 percent of their last pay as pension. And this was the genesis of the OROP movement.
Lieutenant Colonel Inderjit Singh (who passed away recently) was the first one to sit on a hunger strike at India Gate on 22 Feb 1982, demanding OROP. Even when the bureaucrats said, ‘over my dead body’, Indira Gandhi had agreed to the demand but failed to fulfill it.
"Not only was OROP not implemented, the status and compensation given to those who had taken an oath to give up their lives in the line of their duty, were systematically brought down with every pay commission."
All the governments that followed promised to implement it but ultimately ditched the soldiers. Not only was OROP not implemented, the status and compensation given to those who had taken an oath to give up their lives in the line of their duty, were systematically brought down with every pay commission.
The 4th CPC had introduced a running pay scale for officers from Captains to Brigadiers and given an additional rank pay to compensate for different ranks. The bureaucrats while fixing the new pay reduced the rank pay from the newly fixed pay and then gave the rank pay, effectively denying the rank pay.
An officer, Major Dhanapalan, working on the new pay for civilians in Military Engineering Service, brought it to the notice of the then CoAS, General K Sundarji who simply snubbed him. It was in 1998 when Dhanapalan got posted to Kochi he could approach the High Court and demand his dues. While he got a favorable verdict at the High Court, the Central Government went to the Supreme Court. Finally, Dhanapalan got all his dues.
Based on the Dhanapalan verdict many groups of officers approached the high courts for similar relief. The apex court got all the cases pooled together and gave a verdict in favor of the officers. But many appeals, revisions, and Special Leave Petitions later, almost a decade after, the court succumbed to the pleas of the government and directed that the arrears from 01 Jan 1986 to 31 Dec 2005 need not be paid and only the arrears from 01 Jan 2006 to be paid with a simple interest of 6 percent.
Now look at how the bureaucrats and politicians (MLAs, MPs and ministers) have given themselves OROP.
While for all the lower levels there is a scale of pay with annual increments, at the top there is only fixed pay for the bureaucrats. This ensures that all the bureaucrats who retire at those levels automatically get the same pension, always. And in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), almost all direct recruits retire at the level of Secretaries to the Government of India or their equivalent.
The 6th CPC in 2006 introduced another bizarre scheme - Non-Functional Financial Upgradation NFFU) - for the bureaucrats of the IAS and Indian Police Service (IPS) cadres. By this any member of a batch getting promoted anywhere in India would entitle all the members of that batch to get the same pay and perks irrespective of their current tasking.
Now, interestingly, even though the other Group A services also pass through the same process of recruitment, even the members of the IPS got only 2nd rate treatment in that they got the same status and perks only two years after their parallel batchmate in the IAS.
The 7th CPC has extended this NFFU to all Group A cadres. Military officers, who should, logically, be the only ones eligible for such a privilege because of the steeple pyramid nature of their structure and dearth of vacancies at the top, have been denied this simply because they are a class apart and do not come under the classification of Group A.
For the MLAs, MPs and ministers, there is no minimum service required to be eligible for pension. For example, as per information received under the RTI Act in 2013, an MP who has served for ANY period is entitled to Rs 20,000/- as pension from 18/5/2009. After 5 years, he is entitled to additional Rs 1,500/- for every extra year of service. And this system has been in vogue since 09/09/1976.
"Now, as in 1962, it was left to the Chinese to wake up both the bureaucrats and the politicians from their slumber."
Similarly, in Kerala, the MLAs were eligible for a minimum pension of Rs 6,000/- for 'less than two years of service and full pension of Rs 10,000/- on completion of a full term of five years. Thereafter, for every year or part thereof, they get a fixed amount as additional pension.
Interestingly, while Rs 129,094,352/- had been paid as pension/family pension to 3,857 MPs/family pensioners, during Dec 2012-Feb 2013, an amount of Rs 2,645/- crores had been paid by the Lok Sabha Secretariat towards the rail travel of ex-MPs during the quarter Jan-Mar 2013. (Letter No 1(556)/IC/13 dated 31/05/2013 of the Lok Sabha Secretariat).
Back to Kerala again, each minister in Kerala is entitled to have a personal staff of 25 of his own choice, no qualifications, competence prescribed. And they also become eligible for life long pension/family pension after just 30 months of service. There was this Minister for Health, Srimathi, who had employed her own daughter in law as a cook in her house, as her personal staff.
Kerala government, which had stopped statutory pension to its employees who have joined after 01 Jan 2014, has introduced pension for even the elected members of local bodies recently.
The betrayal of soldiers is not limited to pay and pensions. The Armed Forces Tribunals (AFT) and Ex-Servicemen Contributory Health Scheme (ECHS) were introduced long, long after the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS) had been in place.
While there are 17 benches for CAT, there are only 9 benches for the AFT. As per a list dated 23 Sep 2020, there are only 23 vacant positions out of 65 posts of members sanctioned. But all the benches are functional.
In the case of AFTs, there are only the Principal Bench at Delhi that has the full quorum of Judicial and Administrative members (2 each). While Chandigarh bench has a judicial member, Chennai bench has only an administrative member. The other benches are defunct as per data available on the AFT Delhi website, as of 23 November 2020.
While I hold the Contempt of Court Act as anathema in a democracy, the fact remains that the CATs have this power which makes their decisions more implementable. The AFTs do not have this power and hence their orders are often dumped with impunity.
The disparity in between CGHS and ECHS is also baffling. The ECHS introduced in 2003-04 with great fanfare has also proved to be a damp squib. With a smart card having biometric identification features, one was supposed to walk in and out of empaneled hospitals without any hassles in getting the required medical care. Funds were not supposed to be a problem at all. But a decade and a half later, there are many hospitals who had once got empaneled refusing to renew the contract.
The bills of private hospitals pending with ECHS are preventing many hospitals from joining the scheme. Some are taking the cost from beneficiaries promising to refund it once their bills get cleared. CGHS has also facilities for non-allopathic modes of health care. ECHS does not.
To illustrate how awkward things are for old soldiers, during the pandemic it was announced that beneficiaries could buy medicines prescribed by ECHS or empaneled hospitals from outside pharmacies. While submitting claims, observations have been raised that when substitute medicines are bought the cost must be the lowest. Just imagine the plight of a poor soldier who, in good faith, buys whatever his next-door pharmacist provides him.
How is he to know whether the medicine provided to him is the cheapest? Should he go from pharmacy to pharmacy enquiring how much a Metformin tablet would cost? And how can he be sure that, after such a strenuous exercise, whatever he has bought is still the cheapest?
One has heard of being penny wise, pound foolish. But don’t our procedures show how our systems cheat our own?
Let me conclude with a humorous anecdote that is viral in veteran circles. A General had a light stroke while swimming in the Army pool. As luck would have it, only a young lieutenant was around who promptly jumped and saved him...Once out of the pool, the General, after gaining his breath said, “Look son, I am the CDS....tell me anything you want from the Army...and you will get it...” The youngster hurriedly thanked him for the nice offer and wanted to leave....The General was too grateful and repeated his offer...The youngster slowly said, “If you really want to do me a favor...Please do not tell anyone that I saved you!”
(Major Ravindran was born on 8 May 1955 and subsequently commissioned into the 1st Unit: 7 Inf Division, Signal Regiment as an officer in the Indian Army on 11 June 1977. The author has been a regimental officer barring a short stint with Joint Communication Electronics Staff with the Ministry of Defence. He has had a vast operational experience having served in all sectors- Ferozepur, Udhampur, Tripura, Jalandhar, Secunderabad, Delhi, North Lakhimpur/Tezpur.
He retired on 6 Apr 1998, with his final unit being 4 Corps Engineer Signal Regiment. Post retirement, he has kept busy as an activist working for transparency and accountability in government. Some area of his interest are: judicial reforms, justice for soldiers and Right to Information Act, with his articles on these subjects having been published in both the print and online media. You can follow his work at: raviforjustice.blogspot.com.)