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The government cons the military, again

December 30, 2008

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First it was the unflattering and detrimental report of the sixth pay commission. Then followed the malicious manoeuvring to downgrade the military further, on the sly, through the committee of secretaries tasked to reconcile the contentious proposals advanced by the same pay commission. Now it is the turn of an unfeeling government to drive the military and its veterans into despondency.


In a written reply, Defence Minister A K Antony informed the Rajya Sabha on December 11 that the government has not found acceptable the demand for 'one rank one pension' (OROP) by the ex-servicemen.


Our politicians may have no qualms about showering promises and reneging on them at will, but the military veterans today feel cheated, no less. The whole military structure rests on the bedrock of ranks. Unfortunately, the stuffed shirts inhabiting the corridors of power are uninterested in understanding military ethos. Make no mistake, OROP is an emotive issue for the men in uniform, and there is deep hurt and resentment at being taken for another ride.


Worse, the denial of OROP comes at a time when the three services are acutely enfeebled by shortage of young officers, at a time when the services are labouring to curb the exodus of middle-level officers, at a time when eligible lads are giving a career in the forces a miss. Could there be a worse illustration of governmental apathy?


A brief history of 'one rank one pension'

The concept of 'one rank one pension' is fairly straightforward. Fairness demands that a soldier's pension be determined by just two factors: his rank and the length of his service. That is, two military pensioners who retired in the same rank after rendering equal service should get equal pension irrespective of their dates of retirement. Nobody has so far cogently rebutted this rationale to be unreasonable.


The government, and the blinkered bureaucracy that steers it, however do not think straight, and they excel in entangling simple strands into an intricate skein of complexities. As a result, over the years, the pension system evolved without extending fresh gains to the past pensioners and propagating new classifications on the way. So much so that at one time there were 14 categories of pensioners!


Mission OROP commenced in the early eighties to stem this proliferation and to rationalise military pension. The Supreme Court gave its nod to the concept of OROP on December 17, 1982. Consequently, a committee headed by K P Singh Deo was tasked two years later to settle the issues raised by the ex-servicemen. It made 62 recommendations and stamped its imprimatur on OROP. While most of these were accepted, OROP lingered on like an ugly birthmark.


In a placatory gesture, the government granted a 'one time increase' in 1992. Later the fifth pay commission merged all the pre-1996 pensioners into one category, and created a new breed of post-1996 pensioners.


The politicians pledged bipartisan backing to OROP both inside and outside Parliament. OROP has featured in the election manifesto of all major political formations. On  April 10, 1999, George Fernandes [Images], then defence minister, proclaimed at Anandpur Sahib that OROP would become a reality in 'a few days.'


Sonia Gandhi [Images] endorsed OROP in a Congress party rally at Chandigarh on November 23, 2002. OROP was part of the President's address to the Parliament in 2004, thus elevating it as a sworn government policy.


The parliamentary standing committee on defence chaired by Madan Lal Khurana spiritedly favoured OROP in its twentieth report and he urged the inter-ministerial committee to examine the issue and operationalise it expeditiously.


The mystery of OROP negation -- it beats me

Being a stated government objective, the sixth pay commission, a creature of the government, should have brought it in force but it simply winked at OROP, thus paving the way for the-powers-that-be to discard OROP now. Why the government jettisoned OROP -- a cool catch-phrase hitherto -- from its charter of pledges is incomprehensible. 


In the Rajya Sabha, the defence minister did not assign compelling reasons for dumping OROP but if it was the fear that other central services too might clamour for a similar demand, then it is indefensible, for:


One, the concept of rank is unique to the military. Those in non-military services may carry designations/posts like 'director general' but these have no formal sanctity the world over. However, those in/from the military are always referred to by his rank, even after death.


Two, while those serving in the military retire by rank, the other government employees retire by age. To keep the forces young, a vast majority of servicemen are retired in their mid-30s, but their civilian counterparts serve up to the age of 60 years. Since the date of retirement also determines the quantum of pension, with each pay commission (with periodicity of 10 years), the military veterans who retired early receive lesser pension compared to those who retired later with the same rank and same service. As military pensioners are subjected to two or three more pay commissions in their lifetime, they have to suffer the disparities bred by it every 10 years. (Hence the relevance of OROP)


Three, civilian pensioners have not sought the equivalent of OROP to date. Further, when the 'one time increase' was granted to the armed forces, civilian pensioners never made it a bone of contention.


Four, the pension structure of the defence personnel is distinct and no other central service has sought a similar structure or parity with the ex-servicemen.


Five, the parliamentary standing committee in its 2004 report had estimated the annual cost of implementing OROP to be Rs 614 crores. Even after catering for inflation, the resultant amount is small change to governments that unabashedly hand out princely sums to patronise cronies, to cultivate vote banks and to feather their nest.


Hence the governmental reluctance to sanction OROP is truly boggling.


Cold-shoulder, procrastinate, turn down -- the time-tested trick

As for the sixth pay commission, sidestepping OROP was not a one-off. Payscales have direct bearing on pension, and it used this handle to deliver another blow below the belt of the veterans. It is no secret that on matters military, the babus are the ones who poison the minds of our political leadership. And herein one can spot the fingerprints of the hands of bureaucracy that snatched away a legitimate and well-received demand. The babus have always delighted in slighting the services but I hope it dawns on our people the kind of insidious damage they are wreaking on the very bastion of our freedom.


The government response to circumvent awkward predicaments is always predictable: announce an anomalies committee or empower a group of ministers. Cold storage in other words! In fact, these anomalies committees have become a joke; the unmissable irony is that the very babus who masterminded the anomalies are then mustered to untwist the skein!


A decade back, the fifth pay commission begat 48 'anomalies' and an anomalies committee was set up to iron out the kinks. Only eight out of 48 found favour. Logically, the rest 40 should have been in the remit of the sixth pay commission for resolution, but were swept under the carpet. That is how our bureaucracy plays the stepmother, spoiler and the game of attrition.


A gibe going the rounds truly hints at the pernicious role of the bureaucracy: 'Why is Chandrayaan [Images] a resounding success? Because, there were no babus involved in the project!'


The Indian bureaucracy is evidently inspired by a skill of the weasel, an animal that sucks out the contents of eggs and leaves behind intact shells. An egg that a weasel has sucked out would look unscathed to untrained eyes. Similarly, our babus are wizards at sucking dry any grand idea and leaving just its void shell. This empty eggshell is then showcased to hoodwink us suckers (the public) -- oblivious to the smashing idea snuffed out already by the babu long ago -- into believing that it might hatch any time!


'Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die.'  This is an oft-quoted line from the moving epitaph Alfred Lord Tennyson penned of the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854.  The Union government has apparently taken the Tennyson verse for granted, expects the military to abide by the code of omerta and to swallow the bureaucratic meanness without murmuring why. 


Instead of walking in lockstep with the guarantors of national security, the babus seem hell-bent on demoralising the forces that have time and again kept the flag flying despite severe stress. One hopes the country will grasp the perils of having a demoralised military. Even the most formidable army needs to be cared for and nurtured by the mother country.


What now? Limited options, time to rally round

For the spate of raw deals, the veterans and their kith and kin can join forces to vote against the UPA parties in the upcoming general election. Our politicians understand only the language of votes, and this step might make them sit up and take notice.


Move the Supreme Court, but after the court order, one can expect a welter of sundry committees, protracted debates, trite counterpoints, circumnavigating files and other time-honoured methods of temporisation to be used by the babus to obstruct OROP, leaving the survivors distraught and desolate, and benumbed with deja vu.


The best shot is to implore those parliamentarians sincerely well-disposed towards the armed forces to call the government to honour its promise.


The larger issues

Everyone and his pet know that the only sensible solution is in having a separate pay commission for the armed forces. Several countries have Armed Forces Pay Boards and these bodies are adequately represented by serving and retired officers. Why can't we?


Since our polity perfunctorily panegyrises the men-at-arms in public, and spitefully stabs them in private, and a stringent code of conduct gags the soldiers, it is time to deliberate an idea floated by several veterans: Why not set up a Blue Ribbon Commission to delve into all aspects of our armed forces and their place in the Republic?


M P Anil Kumar is a former fighter pilot. 

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