I prided myself in joining the regiment my father served in as did many of us who followed their father’s footsteps in what was considered the best tradition in the best organisation. Invariably greeted and welcomed by all ranks, not to forget the elder community of veterans who we had learnt to refer to as uncles and aunts. It was an extended family. What has changed over the past decade or so? Most battalions lament a break in the ‘family’ as less and less number of army brats join. Apart from a larger number of opportunities elsewhere, are there other reasons for this? I intend looking into the other angle as dispassionately as possible.
After the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government took charge a number of actions and directions were received from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Army Headquarters (AHQ) what do these reflect and how are they perceived? Do they force a change in attitude bordering on insensitivity/indifference towards veterans? Do they protect organisational interests? In the long run will these be good for the country? It is not my intention to criticise an individual or political party but to merely bring to fore a perceived opinion on what many veterans may just be feeling.
We prided ourselves in the sense of tradition, the larger or extended family and a great feeling of belongingness. The battalion was our ‘go to’ place for anything! So was the military station/cantonment. Be it any reason, a morning walk, a raising day, a battle honor, a personal issue like marriages, deaths, or any other occasion. Has this changed? At the unit as well as station level, everyone is bound by the directions flowing from top, therefore while the heart may be in the right place and willing to do right, actions cannot go against these directions.
A Brief Recap of Watershed Events Leading to the Growing Chasm those Serving & Veterans
The lack of support to veterans in their quest for better financial standing by seeking One Rank One Pension (OROP)/Non-Functional Financial Upgradation (NFFU). A complete silence for OROP and Opposing NFFU says much. Then there was the erstwhile Chief reportedly going on record to state that he is not the ‘Chief for veterans’ at the Manekshaw Center in Delhi Cantonment as widely publicised on social media. Followed by the erstwhile Adjutant General (AG) going on record to distastefully criticise veterans in his interview to a news channel, the video went viral.
There have been increased litigations involving MoD and veterans on various issues fully backed by AHQ in many a case. We don’t see any such action by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA)! We have witnessed a reduction in Canteen Stores Department (CSD) entitlements and conflicting directions to the medical services in treatment and entitlement of veterans and dependents by initially permitting them, then denying them treatment and subsequently opening Military Hospitals (MH) to civilians at the cost of keeping veterans out.
Mission Victory India dated 6 May 2021 quotes Defence Minister Rajnath Singhas saying “I have directed the Armed Forces to extend all possible help to the civil administration. People have great faith and trust in the Armed forces.” Then a Press Information Bureau (PIB) brief dated 6 April lists out which Military Hospitals have opened for civilians, it includes Lucknow and Ahmadabad, do politicians in high positions have personal interest!? Quite similar to the issue of opening cantonment land in Hyderabad!
Then there is the case of the Base Hospital Delhi Cantt, running short of oxygen and moving court, leading onto a battle in courts, followed by a Live law report of 6 May 2021’ Armed Forces Cannot setup Field Hospitals, cannot aid civil administration in these times: Center tells Delhi High Court, 7 May Indian Express; Delhi High Court refuses calling in the Army and finally, the MOD going on record to state that the Ex-serviceman’s Contributory Health Scheme (ECHS) had failed and required a review!? The Tribune of 8 May 2021 refers.
Amongst all the issues mentioned above, the mayhem of COVID-19 cases continues unabated, and veterans line the military hospitals in despair after exhausting the possibility of getting help from ECHS empaneled hospitals which are primarily meant to serve the civilian population, thus overburdened with the load of Coronavirus patients.
All this while, many Army Hospitals stand virtually helpless in the wake of confused directions not excluding the letter from the Directorate General Armed Forces Medical Services (DGAFMS) dated 8 April 2021 titled and I quote, “Age Limit For Wholly Dependent Children of All Ranks” paragraph two reads… “It is clarified that as on date there is no age limit restriction for entitlement of wholly dependent unmarried children of serving personnel. They are entitled for treatment at AFMS hospitals irrespective of their age.” What happens to them on superannuating? Have these individuals forgotten that they too will hang their uniform?
Scant regard for dependent veterans, who may have their children too as wholly dependent on them or, of those in service who have parents as veterans being denied treatment in military hospitals. Imagine the effect on moral of a serving soldier deployed on the borders when his parents being veterans are denied admission in military hospitals and run pillar to post for treatment. What will happen to wholly dependent children when those in service retire?
Lastly, a lame duck exercise by AHQ in announcing that veterans will not be denied treatment at military hospitals amidst all this confusion and rising reports on social media of veterans dying due to lack of sensitivity and admission in military hospitals!
Observations: What could have been Done to Avoid such a Situation?
There is no denying that when Gen Vij as Chief initiated the process for establishing ECHS it was well intended and done as a visionary for the future well-being of the growing numbers of veterans. All of us contributed to it. Over the years, numbers increased manifold, polyclinics were created to reach out and reduce the load on military facilities by empaneling private hospitals. This worked well in normal times for a period, an established system fell in place only to be shattered in the present situation.
Issues for Consideration
Firstly, veterans will continue to depend on military facilities. Tampering with the culture and ethos of the armed forces will result in the breaking down of the very foundations of the army, where one dons the uniform conscious of the fact that it builds a relationship for life, gets accustomed to visiting the CSD, units, military hospitals in his hour of need, considers this his right for life. What of the sense of belongingness and extended family? Already the youth are looking towards the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) as a better alternative.
Secondly, could we have carried out a study of dependency in each military hospital and built on it to meet the increased need in this crisis rather than shut the door to veterans while opening up to civilians? Such figures would already be known.
Thirdly, could the support to civilians been made available based on the density of private hospitals in each city, medical and nursing colleges around and the density of military personnel pointed towards the service hospital?
Fourthly, taking care of veterans who are Indian citizens first would invariably have reduced the load on civil hospitals, both government and private to further open up beds to civilians through reduction in veteran load while retaining the faith amongst veterans, their kith, and kin as well.
Tampering by the MoD who control the funds and cracks the whip, has in the past created challenges, and stifled the system, especially the present dispensation. This recent statement by MoD can only be viewed as another attempt to shortchange the defence community and a continued effort to create further disillusionment amongst not only those in service but the large and vibrant veteran community without realising that every veteran has relations including children who are still in service. It is time for the MoD to realise that their job is to look after the ‘morale’ of soldiers and not to lower it. Past precedence of fighting veterans in courts on various issues does not lend to it a good image.
About the Author
Brig. Sharma is a veteran with 35 years of military experience under his belt, Brigadier Sharma, was commissioned into the JAT regiment. He has had rich exposure to the travails of the country in the remotest of areas. He has seen closely the happenings in J&K, Punjab, Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram in operational circumstances. In addition, he has had the proud distinction of being, selected to raise the NSG and being a squadron commander with the 51 SAG, an Instructor in the Indian Military Academy, Colonel General Staff of an active division, Commander of a Brigade in super HAA, Directing Staff in Army War college, and the Brig Gen Staff responsible for facilitating the training in various Military Establishments including the School for Counter Insurgency & Terrorism & Jungle Warfare. He has been a member of study groups on China as well as Officer Cadre management in his time.
(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')