The Medals Don’t Count. Justice Is What Soldiers Seek

Getting a raw deal: War veterans take part in a march in Delhi for One Rank One Pension
Getting a raw deal: War veterans take part in a march in Delhi for One Rank One Pension, Photos: Tarun Sehrawat

FOR MILLIONS of Indians raised on stories of valour of their armed forces, it was indeed a shame to see thousands of war veterans marching to Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, returning medals won through great personal sacrifice.

Their demand was simple: pension parity or One Rank One Pension (OROP). This means servicemen of the same rank and same years of service must get equal pension irrespective of the date of superannuation. Though in principle the government agrees the demand is just, there seems no political will to back it.

After the Fifth and Sixth Pay Commissions, a big difference in pensions has been created, depending on when a serviceman retired. An officer with 35 years experience who retired before 1996 will get less pension than one with less years in service who retires after 2006. As Major General (retd) Satbir Singh points out, “A Lt Col super who retires today would have looked after 100-120 personnel whereas at my level, one would look after 20,000 people and a much larger land area.” Though some correction has been made for commissioned officers and other ranks, the anomaly remains.

That’s not all. Armed forces veterans (AFV) have a major grouse about the administrative stranglehold on issues dear to them and the brushing aside of their problems by an apathetic bureaucracy.

Till the Third Pay Commission, pensions for armed forces personnel were based on rank and length of service in that rank. AFV got 75 percent of their last pay drawn as pension, while the administrative side got 33 percent. The Third Pay Commission, which covered the defence services for the first time, much against the will of the forces, decreased the pension of the force to 50 percent while increasing the pension of its civilian counterpart from 33 percent to 50 percent, with riders on getting full pension after 33 years of service. The advantage they had earlier was taken away in this manner.

“Rather than compensating for the harsh conditions of service and forced early retirement of around 85 percent of our forces, the sole beneficiary of this pension equalisation was the civil service,” points out Air Vice Marshal (retd) RP Mishra. “In the 1960s, pension of civil employees was limited to a maximum of Rs 416 per month whereas pension of a Major was Rs 475 per month and that of Chiefs was Rs 1,000 per month. In the Sixth Pay Commission, maximum pension of civil employees is Rs 45,000 per month which is the same as pension of Chiefs. Pension of Majors is just Rs 14,464 per month. Is it justified?“ asks Mishra.

This change had millions of AFV protesting. They pointed out that from 1960 to 2006, the pension of the highest ranking officers has increased 45 times, while that of the highest civilian ranking officers has increased 108 times.

Dignified protest A widow and a veteran display the medals given for the supreme sacrifice
Dignified protest A widow and a veteran display the medals given for the supreme sacrifice

“In today’s context, pension is no longer dependent on rank. Instead, it depends on years of service and emoluments,” adds Mishra. “This means that even a low-ranking individual can draw higher pension than a high-ranking one.” Satbir adds, “If one compares a soldier to a police constable, there is a difference of over Rs 45 lakh in their lifetime earnings due to early retirement and restricted promotions.”

Brigadier RKS Gulia says a question the government always raises in discussions about OROP is: what if government officers raise a similar demand? “I pointed out that 85 percent of armed forces personnel retire at 37-42 years. Another 5-12 percent retire at 44-52. Only 0.35 percent retire at the age of 60. In the civil services, they all serve up to the age of 60, get all three assured career progressions and consequently not only draw increasing pay but end up with much higher pension.”

Other than these pension anomalies, what AFV finds disturbing is the fact that there is no effort on the part of the government to improve the lot of widows of armed forces personnel, numbering close to 3.5-4 lakh. “Everybody has got something except these widows,” says Gulia. “This is the biggest worry for us because they need it more than us.”

SATBIR SINGH too is livid at the neglect of these widows, pointing out that pensions for Junior Commissioned Officers and below were raised but not for widows. This is in spite of the fact that a letter was sent to the prime minister about this discrepancy. “A bureaucratic reply stated that pension of widows was not enhanced as it had not been mentioned in the report of Committee of Secretaries. What should they do? With a meagre Rs 3,500 per month to look after herself, who knows what all she must be undergoing? Is the country being governed by our elected representatives or bureaucrats?”

What riles AFV most is political indifference, be it the defence ministry or the President of India. “We sought time from President Pratibha Patil’s office on three occasions but she has refused to meet us,” says a visibly agitated Satbir Singh, “She has time for everybody except us. And she is our Supreme Commander.”

Even the prime minister has been misled by the bureaucracy about OROP, claims AFV. “On 10 March 2008, in reply to a question in Parliament, the PM said we have accepted all the demands,” says Satbir Singh. “I immediately rang up the Opposition that the PM is misleading the country — he had accepted all the demands but the Rs 2,200 crore allocated in the budget of 2009 was never released. Within three days, the PM ordered it to be released.”

From 1960 to 2006, the pension of the senior-most officers increased 45 times, while that of top civilian officers went up 108 times

So are they hopeful that this meeting with the Rajya Sabha Appointments Committee will have a positive outcome?

“It may just be a formality,” says Gulia, “When we said so many committees have been formed and made their recommendations, nothing has happened so far, their response was that their mandate is limited. That’s why it seems to me to be more of a formality.”

While the armed forces continue to defend the borders, sometimes with the supreme sacrifice, they find they have to fight new battles when they retire. As Satbir Singh put it, “The bureaucracy and the government are treating us like chala hua kartoos (spent cartridges). The worst thing is, they are not even ashamed of it. They forget what Calvin Coleridge said: The nation that forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.”

Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.


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