They also serve those who only stand and wait. Whatever the original significance of this line from John Milton’s poem “On His Blindness”, it has taken on an entirely new meaning for retired soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Indian Armed Forces. After having served the country gallantly and loyally, our men in uniform have been waiting patiently for the past 25 years for a rational pension regime. But after years of standing and waiting in vain, in mid-June this year they decided to sit-in on an indefinite relay hunger strike at Jantar Mantar, the national capital Delhi’s designated venue for public protest. Raman Swamy pens his thoughts for the readers of NRI Achievers …
Three weeks into their relay fast, the ex-servicemen have now received morale-boosting support from India’s most known anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare, who had shaken up the country three years ago with his fast-unto-death. Within hours of Anna’s announcement that he will consider joining the relay hunger strike, the Government swung into action, with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar losing no time to assure ex-servicemen that their long-standing demand for One-Rank-One-Pension (OROP) would soon be met. “There will be good news soon” were his exact words.
There were no premature celebrations. The relay hunger strike was not called off. The battle-scarred men in uniform know better than taking verbal assurances at face value as successive governments in the past had made similar promises. And sure enough, even weeks after Parrikar’s pledge, the veterans were still waiting for the good news. “Why is the government taking so much time ?” they ask. “If the matter has been cleared by all the departments, then what is coming in the way of OROP being implemented ?” Observers say there is good reason for the vets to be sceptical. During the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign BJP had promised that implementation of OROP was top priority. Since then, its Ministers have periodically reiterated their government’s commitment but it is only after Anna Hazare’s letter to the PM demanding immediate implementation and his hint that he intends to join the street level agitation that fresh promises are being made that the matter would be resolved soon.
The crux of the problem is that a pension of retired armed forces personnel is based on Pay Commission recommendations in force at the time of their retirement. If implemented, the OROP formula would ensure that all retirees with the same rank and length of service would get the same pension irrespective of when they retire. At present, those who retired before 2006, the year of the last Pay Commission, actually receive much less than even their juniors who retired after that year. Thus, a Havildar (NCO) who retired earlier with over 20 years of service may receive less pension than a soldier who retired later with only 15 years of service. As an example for the officer cadre, the pension of a post-2012 retiree Colonel was INR 35,841, whereas a pre-2006 retiree Major General’s pension was INR 26,700. These disparities are grossly unfair because the soldier is retired compulsorily at an age depending upon his rank, and his pension is fixed upon the pay according to the Pay Commission in force at retirement.
There is more than meets the eye to the foot dragging over OROP. Unlike civilians, veterans of the Army, Navy and Air Force normally refrain from going public on issues regarding their own rights and entitlements, given their years of service in a strict disciplinarian environment under the Armed Forces Acts of Parliament, which expressly deny them the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression. However, they seem to have now reached the end of their tether. Delay tactics of politicians and bureaucrats over the years have pushed them to the limits of their endurance, patience and tolerance.
The demand for One-Rank-One-Pension was first raised a quarter century ago in the 1980s. Nothing moved until the Congress party promised OROP in its 2004 poll manifesto, but the UPA government rejected the demand in December 2008. In protest, Veterans returned over 22,000 gallantry, war and service medals to the President of India, along with symbolically signing a letter in 2009 with their own blood. Since then, under the banner of the Indian Ex-Servicemen’s Movement (IESM), veterans have been periodically taking delegations to the Ministry of Defence, writing letters to the Prime Minister and Defence Minister, and holding peaceful and dignified rallies and public demonstrations.
In 2013, the Standing Committee of Parliament on Defence studied and accepted the concept and definition of OROP. It was part of the UPA budget in February 2014 and was reflected in an executive order to that effect the same month, but saw no further action with imminent general elections looming ahead. During the poll campaign, Narendra Modi, then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, made a firm promise at a Veterans’ Rally at Rewari in Haryana, that if elected to office he would ensure implementation of OROP. After the BJP-NDA government came to power, OROP was mentioned in the budget speech in July 2014, and the Minister of State for Defence confirmed it in the Rajya Sabha last December. Again, in March this year, during Modi’s visit to frontline troops on the Siachen glacier, he reiterated his solemn assurance that the OROP demand would be fulfilled. More than four months have passed since, but still nothing concrete has surfaced. Nobody seems to know why the government is hesitant to take the final leap and fix a time-frame for implementation.
The core issue is that Armed Forces veterans who have retired earlier receive much less pension than those who retired more recently. Many outside the military argue that there is nothing special about this aberration – similar situations happen in other government jobs too. So why are the Veterans making such a fuss, they ask. To answer this perfectly valid question one needs to take note of some little-known facts concerning the military, at least in so far as service, retirement and pension are concerned. Only a detailed examination of the problem can lend clarity.
Firstly, Armed Forces personnel are compulsorily retired at early ages, and retirement age depends upon rank. Early retirement is unavoidable if we are to “keep our armies young.” Jawans not promoted to NCO or JCO ranks retire after just 15 to 17 years of service when aged 35 to 37 years. Those promoted as NCOs or JCOs retire at age 45 to 47 years. Retirement age for Officers is connected with rank as well – 50 for Major, 52 for Lt Colonel, 54 for Colonel, 56 for Brigadier, 58 for Maj General, 60 for Lt General, and 62 for a full General, noting that promotions suffer due to a pincer-like squeeze between performance and severely limited vacancies given the rigid pyramidal rank structure. That is why, of all Armed Forces retirees, soldiers constitute about 90%.
Secondly, a soldier who was retired, say, in 1986 would receive pension on the basis of his salary according to the Fourth Pay Commission, while the pension of a soldier who was retired after the Sixth Pay Commission (20 years later) would be considerably higher because successive Pay Commissions fix salaries according to the rising cost indices.
Thirdly, compulsory retirement after just 15-17 years of service at age 35 years means a soldier is effectively denied salary earnings of 25 years which other government employees (including police forces) receive as they retire at age 60. With negligible scope for lateral entry into government service even for soldiers who retire without disability attributable to military service, he is forced to seek employment to supplement his meagre pension at a time when his family and other commitments are just beginning to spiral. This, along with lower pension of earlier retirees, is a combination that makes for near-destitution of a soldier who has served in hard conditions defending the nation. For comparison, a CRPF policeman retires at 57 years age, and CRPF authorities are pressing for retirement age to be increased to 60 years.
Fourthly, there are huge differences in military officer cadre vis-a-vis IAS and IPS. Consider the rank of Maj Gen, to which only 0.8% officers get elevated to after about 30 years of service, due to the command-control-discipline rank structure of the army. The equivalent rank in the IAS is a Joint Secretary (JS), which 100% of IAS cadres attain after merely 18 years of service, and about 80% of IPS cadre after 20 years. It is this glaring unfairness in parity in addition to early retirement age which is at the root of the OROP demand. Further, and even more unfairly, the Jawan is equated with a Class D government employee.
There has been much discussion regarding what OROP would cost the exchequer. Many have argued it would be unaffordable, and further that other government servants would also start demanding OROP if a precedent is set. However Army veterans maintain that OROP cannot be withheld from them just because some others, whose conditions of service and promotions are entirely different, also demand OROP. According to available information, on 17th February this year, the MoD sent the OROP final proposal for INR 8,300 crores to the Finance Ministry. Adding this INR 8,300 crores to the existing INR 43,000 crores of Defence pensions will take the total up to INR 51,300 crores per annum, which is clearly not as unaffordable as is being claimed. Veterans argue that when the BJP-NDA budget could allow INR 5.72 lakh crores as “revenue foregone” to provide concessions on corporate tax, commercial tax and customs duties to business houses for one year, hesitating at spending less than one-tenth of it on soldiers who have given the best years of their lives for the nation’s defence was a deliberate slight indeed.
The PM recently made a remark that OROP was not clearly defined. This has aroused doubts among veterans whether the IAS Lobby had sown this doubt in Modi’s mind, and this suspicion gains credence indeed given the composition of successive Central Pay Commissions and also the manner of functioning of the MoD’s Department of Ex-Servicemen’s Welfare. Truth is that a large section of the civilian public, including legislators, are ignorant of soldiers’ tough working conditions – early retirement, non-family stations and long separations, continual life-threatening stressful scenarios, risks on-the-ground and in-the-field, high casualty rates, strict disciplinary regime under military law, denial of fundamental rights, yada. The bigger tragedy is that most civilians are not even interested in knowing, let alone understanding.
All this could change if Anna Hazare, an ex-serviceman himself who spent 15 years as an Army driver and miraculously survived two close shaves with death during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, actually joins the hunger strike at Jantar Mantar. The Vets are keeping their fingers crossed, with many looking forward to the long wait being finally over, and some even hoping against hope that the PM will announce OROP implementation on Independence Day from the ramparts of the Red Fort.