Soldiers of misfortune

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indian army
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Ex-army personnel have been long demanding better and more equitable pensions. However, the Sixth Pay Commission mandated less pension for those serivce men who retired before 2006 than those who retired after. This created a disparity in the pension of  all three categories of personnel – jawans, Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) and officers and has led to the demand for One Rank One Pension (OROP). Ignoring this demand could cost the UPA government heavily since ex-servicemen are now being organised with the intent of creating a vote bank. As of 2010, there were around 26 lakh defence personnel, while at present, the number of retired personnel is estimated to be around 30 lakh. And all it would cost the UPA is Rs 3,600 crore to end this disparity and get the ex-servicemen on their side.

“This demand for OROP has been there for a long time and a parliamentary committee has approved it, but nobody wants to go ahead. We were never a vote bank, but there was a time when people understood that the service community exists in this country. These days people don’t understand anything other than a vote bank,” said retired General VK Singh in an event organized by the Indian Ex-Servicemen’s Movement (ISM) to bring ex-servicemen under a unified banner. Their aim is to get the unsympathetic government out of power. The former chief of army staff denied speculation about joining the BJP, but did not rule out the possibility.

The ISM has been advocating OROP since 2006. A Major General who retired before 2006 draws Rs 30,000 as pension, which was made Rs 39,000 for post-2006 retirees. Even a post-2006 retired colonel gets Rs 33,000. Retired Major General Satbir Singh, Vice-Chairman,  ISM, has been trying to meet Defence Minister AK Anthony. His letters to the minister elicited no replies, except ones claiming that the matter had been dealt with.

Rajya Sabha MP, Rajeev Chandrashekhar has also been lobbying for OROP with the Defence Minister, but to no avail. He even raised the issue in parliament and proposed a private member’s bill for the welfare of ex-servicemen. “The country needs to show its commitment to the well being of our armed forces and their families. My private member’s bill is a commitment to the armed forces…  a pledge to care for and provide support to the armed forces… one way of saying thank you to the soldiers for their service and sacrifice and for protecting the nation,” said Chandrashekhar. He also wrote to the Prime Minister asking for a bill like the ‘Returned Heroes Tax Credit’ in the United States, which provides tax benefits to companies giving jobs to retired defence service personnel.

“In 2005, the government commissioned a study to find out the life expectancy of civil servants. It was found to be 77 years. Railways conducted a similar study and found it to be 78 years. A retired army official, who also a member of the Fifth Pay Commission, conducted a study that revealed that defence officers live up to 72.5 years; JCOs, 67 years; and other ranks – 59.6 to 64 years,” said Major General Satbir Singh. He added that the defence services put a heavy toll on the health of army jawans and since the 2005 study, stress levels have gone up several times. “It is a shame then that we have to go from door to door to demand our rights for the years we gave away in service. The country seems to be at war with its own soldiers,” he said.

According to the ISM, the pension of defence personnel started stagnating in 1973 when the Third Pay Commission’s recommended emoluments  were enforced. The pension for the Chief of army staff in 1973 was Rs 1,000 while the senior-most bureaucrat drew a pension of Rs 415. The pension of both is now Rs 45,000. It was an increase of 108 times for the bureaucrat, but only 45 times for the army officer. An Under Secretary’s rank and pension was the same as that of a Second Lieutenant, but now it is more than that of a Major in the army. Defence veterans blame the apathy of the bureaucracy and government commissions which do not have ex-servicemen representation for the sorry state of pensions.

Last year, around 200 defence widows, who get 60% of a full pension, camped outside Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s house asking for full pension. They get Rs 3,500, which is less than the minimum wage of New Delhi (Rs 7,500). The UPA chairman was sympathetic and sent them to Defence Minister AK Anthony. Anthony promised them action within a few days, then months and now, more than a year-and-a-half has gone by without any change.

There are nearly three lakh army personnel posted in the Northeast who get three leaves in a year. “But the railways provides reservation for only 50,000 defence personnel against an annual requirement of 8 lakh seats. So, many officers have to bribe their way back home,” said Major General Singh.

With these pending demands and the continuing government inaction, the ex-servicemen could dent the UPA government’s chances of making a comeback in the next elections. Meanwhile, BJP’s possible prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi is planning to address ex-servicemen at a rally in October.

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