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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Disability/Casualty awards notification with effect from 01 Jan 2006, issued today by the Ministry of Defence for defence pensioners

As explained in this earlier post of 30 April 2016, the Department of Pension & Pensioners’ Welfare (DoPPW) had issued the letter for grant of arrears of casualty benefits with effect from 01 Jan 2006 rather than 24 September 2012.

The same had been necessitated since though the Central Government had issued orders revising the pensions of central govt pensioners after removal of the anomaly of ‘minimum of pay band’ versus ‘minimum of pay within the pay band’ from 01-01-2006 rather than the artificial future cut-off date of 24-09-2012 based on the decision of various High Courts as affirmed by the Supreme Court, the parallel rates for disability and casualty awards however had not been revised by the w.e.f 01-01-2006 and the file had remained pending with the Ministry of Finance.

After issuance of the said letter by the DoPPW, the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare has also today issued the parallel letter for military pensioners. The same can be accessed by clicking here.

There were voices questioning the delay by the MoD in issuance of the said letter, but it may kindly be appreciated that there are various kinds of modalities on the defence side which need to be catered for flowing from the fact that there are certain complex situations in defence pensionary provisions which are not existing on the civil side, and hence some delay was expected. In any case, the arrears are w.e.f 01 Jan 2006 and hence the short delay hardly makes a difference. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Look at yourself in the mirror....

This post is free flowing. Triggered by a variety of events in the last few months, I cannot pinpoint the exact contours of my feelings.

Ad nauseam it is heard from the serving and the veteran community as to how key appointments in the Ministry of Defence should be manned by uniformed personnel. Some faujis continually blame the babus for all ills, which emotion I have tried to address, and to an extent, contest, a couple of times earlier on my blog essentially stating that the answers to this quandary are not easy and the situation that we are in emanates from an interplay of complexities which are not easy to comprehend or resolve and that the military community has to share the blame.

Some happenings in the recent past solidify my feelings about our total lack of sensitivity to our heritage, welfare and wellbeing- issues which could be easily resolved at the end of the military establishment or matters that could have been made easier to resolve had the military establishment taken a strong but genuine stand. In certain cases, the military establishment with its rigid stance and holier than thou attitude is also leading to bad press, a complete breakdown of trust and also increase in infructuous litigation and pointless official work. And seniors, when complained to, either do not (rightly) have the time to go into the nitty gritty or are unduly influenced by the make-believe cheeriness perpetrated by the coterie around them thereby insulating them from the ground realities and the pain of the common veteran or kin. Of course, till the time the stakeholders are not consulted and their voice is not heard, the senior authorities are bound to be influenced by their staff which has an easier access to the ear of the seniors with no channel of rebuttal of what may be blatantly incorrect.

The first instance that comes to mind is the case of a 99 year old widow of a disabled World War II pensioner of the Burma Army. The British at one time had common military administration for India and Burma which underwent a change later. The Government of India through the Ministry of Defence pays family pension to widows of such Indian citizens of the Burma Army who came back and settled in India. Particular Record Offices have been tasked to look after them. The lady on her husband’s death in 2012 accordingly applied for the family pension as was due to her. To her horror, various Record Offices kept on tossing the file to one another and to the Army HQ intermittently and ultimately one such Record Office also asked her to contact the authorities in Rangoon for the needful, not even for a moment applying mind to the fact that it is under the authority of the Ministry of Defence, reiterated as recently as in 2009, that the family pension was to be released and Myanmar had nothing to do with it. In any case, it was only after tough talk by the Punjab & Haryana High and when the Raksha Mantri personally took note and the Adjutant General also apparently pulled up the concerned officers that things started moving and within a few days her pension was sanctioned. Of course, it would not be out of place to mention the positive role played by the Central Government Counsel in the High Court and also the officers at the Records Office of the Punjab Regiment who ensured the release of pension at lightning speed after the case was highlighted, but that is not what I am trying to address. The lady was aware of her rights, managed to approach the High Court and senior functionaries also took due interest, but what about those who are/were not so lucky? Aren’t we aware that World War II veterans and also their wives are today on a diminishing scale? Is it too much to expect alacrity from Record Offices in cases of such extremely old veterans and their families or would the rights of such individuals only depend upon Courts and VIP references? I don’t think that a proactive Minister or Chief or Adjutant General would be able to reach out in each and every case, this bounden duty is that of the military staff, but is that happening?

Speaking of Record Offices, let us open our eyes and ask veterans about the quality of responses received for their problems. There are multiple instances wherein representations are simply not replied, not just by the Record Offices, but also by the Manpower Directorate for officers. It is shameful that almost seven decades since independence we have not been able to ensure that offices mandatorily reply to all letters received by them. Then there are instances when policies have changed but Record Offices reject representations without caring to open the rule book. Another area of concern is the Right to Information Act. Some Record Offices are going to absurd lengths on the subject. The Artillery Records, in response to requests for Medical Board proceedings of veterans is asking them to send a copy of an ‘FIR’ for lost medical board proceedings wherein there is no such requirement under the RTI Act. When a veteran seeks his medical board proceedings, the said Record Office is also sermonizing RTI Applicants about the ‘Official Secrets Act’. I fail to understand as to how the Official Secrets Act can be invoked by the Artillery Records on a request of a veteran for his own medical record! The Records Office of the Sikh Regiment, otherwise quite sensitized and responsive, is illegally placing a white sticker on the percentage and attributability/aggravation part of medical board proceedings citing some godforsaken outdated letter of the Director General Armed Forces Medical Services. Needless to state, any such outdated instruction cannot override the provisions of the RTI Act which is an Act passed by the Parliament. Also this action is contemptuous since the Delhi High Court, way back in the mid 2000s, had directed that medical record needed to be provided to every disabled soldier. Moreover, such mind games are being played with applicants not realizing that this increases heartburn and fuels infructuous litigation and cases till the Central Information Commission which involve movement of manpower and resources, heavy burden on tax payers’ money and also on the pockets of veterans and their families, and that too, out of ego and exuberance which should be nipped right in the bud by senior officers. And for what? For a piece of paper which anyway belongs to the veteran being his own health record?

Another example that comes to mind is letters being issued by the Personnel Services Directorate of the Army HQ to Government lawyers, supposedly on instructions of the Ministry of Defence, asking them to file appeals and reviews in matters where arrears have been paid from 01 Jan 2006 on Court orders to litigants by removing certain anomalies arising out of the 6th Central Pay Commission and even in cases wherein litigants, mostly of lower ranks, were illegally denied their due benefits but were released the same on judicial intervention. The Personnel Services Directorate has directed Government lawyers to contend in Courts that the arrears may not be paid from the date they fell due or from the date the anomaly of the pay commission was removed but should be restricted from a future artificial date. Firstly, such a stand is contrary to law laid down by the Supreme Court wherein it has been held that arrears are to flow from the date of inception of the anomaly and not from a future artificial date. Secondly, the said issue has already been agitated by the Ministry as well as the Personnel Services Directorate and filly decided by the Supreme Court in Union of India Vs Subhash Chander Soni wherein orders have been passed in favour of affected litigants and even the Attorney General of India has advised the Ministry and all three Military Chiefs not to cause loss to the State and embarrassment to the Government by continuing filing appeals. Thirdly, the Department of Pension & Pensioners Welfare (DoPPW) has already issued universal orders with financial effect from 01 Jan 2006 (and in certain cases even from 01 Jan 1996) vide various circulars issued in 2015 and 2016 based on Court orders for all affected individuals and it is not understood as to why is the Army insisting upon filing such frivolous appeals and reviews seeking to restrict benefits to its own pensioners. Fourthly, it is well known that anomalies are to be removed from the date of inception of the anomaly which arises on the date of implementation of the Pay Commission report and not from any future artificial date and the officers who are recommending such appeals or reviews against our pensioners of lower ranks or who are signing on or approving such noting sheets would be well advised to first deposit back their rank pay arrears which they themselves may  have received from 1986 or 1996, also the arrears on account of upgradation to Pay Band-4 for all Lt Cols which we had achieved with our sweat and hard-work from the Government and which such officers had received at a later date but with financial effect from 2006 must also be deposited back, similar should be the case with Lt Gens who were later upgraded to a higher scale retrospectively from 2006. Not to forget, all these officers who are recommending restriction of arrears for lower ranks should undertake not to receive arrears of the 7th Central Pay Commission from an earlier date as and when its anomalies are resolved and should solemnly affirm on affidavit to be governed by the same morbid logic and yardstick as they are applying to our pensioners of junior ranks, and this includes the JAG officers who may have rendered any such opinion on restriction of arrears. All officers who have recommended restriction of arrears for their jawans must also solemnly resolve to refuse any such similar arrears as granted to their civilian counterparts in the future in view of their own negative stand for the pensionary arrears of their subordinates. Of course, this shall be in line with that motto of Philip Chetwode, remember? Yes, that one!

Having seen the functioning of the Ministry of Home Affairs and some State Governments in the field of litigation, I can say it with responsibility that it is only the three defence services which put undue pressure on their officers to ‘win cases’. But at what cost? The first and foremost duty of a counsel in a Court is to assist the Court and secure justice, not to score a ‘win’. Litigation is not militaristic; you are not fighting a war with the enemy. No other department or organisation gets personally involved with cases or makes litigation a prestige issue, not even the Ministry of Defence. Unnecessary pressure is put on JAG officers and even Government lawyers in the field of litigation. They are encouraged to adopt an adversarial role rather than an approach of resolution. They are questioned and adversely commented upon if they ‘lose’ cases.  They would immediately circulate the rare cases which are decided in favour of the system terming them ‘landmark’, but with the same yardstick cases that lay down law in favour of litigants are never circulated or even implemented. While universal policies are issued by the Department of Pension & Pensioners’ Welfare as soon as an SLP is simply dismissed by the Supreme Court or a decision is rendered by the High Court, in case of military personnel, the Defence Services at times are themselves filing appeals including in matters settled multiple times by the Supreme Court by way of detailed decisions. Disability pension cases being an apt example.

I therefore feel queasy when veterans and serving military personnel blame external agencies for the pathetic condition that they are in, or leave it all at the door of ‘babus’. I also have zero faith when the military community states that the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare should be manned exclusively by military personnel- it could well take it further below nadir unless there is an adequate mix of sensitized experts on key positions. We are turning out not only to be the masters of self-defeat by crushing the rights of our own but also meek spectators who do not even put our disagreements on record or on file for our own little personal gains. It is also clear that we have so much time on our hands in our Headquarters that we display excessive zeal and waste negative energy by looking for loopholes in noting sheets and files to impress seniors to scuttle beneficial policies with a crab mentality. This is the kind of negative enthusiasm that needs to be curbed. On the civil side too, similar exercise is carried out and keenness is shown, but it is to aid and assist employees and pensioners keeping in view the spirit of the beneficial and benevolent nature of policies.

In one of the Raising Day celebrations of my father’s Regiment in the early 1980s, I remember an old Subedar Major saying “Fauj mein koi doosre ko khush nahi dekh sakta”. Is that the root cause? I don’t know, and like I said in the beginning, I cannot pinpoint, but I want him to be proved wrong.

Sorry to sound harsh in this post, but veteran welfare is not just distributing sewing machines and shawls to veer naaris at veteran rallies, it goes much beyond. But then the voice has to come from within.

Before pointing fingers at others, look at yourself in the mirror. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

My oped for 'The Quint': India, we are fighting our own disabled soldiers...

Here is my recent opinion piece for The Quint:

India, we are fighting our own disabled soldiers

Navdeep Singh

Most nations recognize the inherent stress and strain of military service and its detrimental effect on the health and daily lives of soldiers. India does too, but only in theory, not in practice. Lip service galore, zilch on-ground support.

Not many must be aware, contrary to popular perception, the life expectancy of soldiers is lower than their civilian counterparts. The reason is not far to seek. Living in a regimented lifestyle, most of the year away from their families and at times under the shadow of the gun, 24 hours covered with a tough disciplinary law, soldiers face unique stressful conditions which result in aggravating and accentuating even regular diseases and ailments. It doesn’t take much enlightenment to understand that soldiers face higher stress levels than ordinary citizens living with their families since the former are away from commune living and hence cannot adequately cope up with domestic commitments and stressors, but in a strange and ironic kind of incorrigibility, it is the defence establishment itself which is not ready to accept this proposition which is not rocket science but common sense.

Medical specialists all over the world recognize higher stress and strain in uniformed forces. All democracies endorse this. Disability Rules in India also state the same. The Prime Minister thinks on the same lines too. The Defence Minister also feels so. The apex military medical body also speaks the same. The Courts, including the Supreme Court, have directed thus. But still many of our disabled soldiers are released from service and sometimes even thrown out of service on medical grounds, without pension or disability pension, thereby denying them a life of basic dignity, on the pretext that their disabilities were declared ‘neither attributable to, nor aggravated by military service’ by military medical boards- a blatant disregard of practical realities to say the least.

And when such soldiers fight long legal battles for their dues, the official establishment is quick to file appeals till the Supreme Court in order to deny these soldiers and their families a few thousand, and at times a few hundred, rupees. The officialdom is comfortable wasting money and resources on expensive lawyers and litigation but not with releasing lesser amounts to those who have served us.

Nothing could be more shameful for us as a nation.

Our rules, paradoxically, are liberal and sensitive. The rules provide that in case a soldier is recruited in a fit medical condition, then any disability arising during service, except when caused due to his/her own illegality such as substance abuse, is deemed as having been affected by service conditions. This presumption is not unique to India but is followed in almost all democracies since the harmful effects of insidious and invisible pressures of military life are known to manifest themselves negatively on the health of soldiers. Still, benefits are refused on unforgivable excuses such as ‘disability was incurred in a peace area’ or ‘disability was due to domestic stressors’ without realizing that the inability to attend to personal and familial requirements has a direct linkage with the military since it is due to service in the defence services that a person is not there all the time to take care of his/her domestic needs, a fact even recognized by successive Defence Ministers who themselves have underlined the rise in stress levels due to this very reason. Also, for soldiers living in barracks who need permission even to go to the washroom and are required to sign registers and take an out-pass for a visit to buy a toothbrush from the market and are denied basic needs such as physical proximity, emotional warmth or even sexual fulfillment for months together, it hardly matters whether they are serving in a ‘peace’ area or ‘field’ area, and to top it all, the rules anyway progressively provide that service in ‘peace’ or ‘field’ makes no difference for disability benefits..

The Supreme Court, in a series of decisions, has directed the Ministry of Defence to grant benefits to disabled soldiers. A Committee of Experts constituted by the Defence Minister to look into rising litigation against soldiers, of which incidentally I was a Member, had also recommended the withdrawal of such litigation and appeals by the Ministry of Defence against its own soldiers. As explained above, the Medical Services Advisory Committee, which is the apex medical body of the military, has also supported the grant of such benefits. The rules too are favourable. The Defence Minister himself has shown resolve to alleviate the problems of such disabled soldiers. Despite all this, recently, elements in the Ministry of Defence had asked the Army Headquarters to file appeals in the Supreme Court against Tribunal and Court orders wherein disability pension had been granted to disabled soldiers, and the Army Headquarters, it seems, readily complied.

Having worked for disabled soldiers for close to two decades now, what pains me greatly in writing this is the fact that while all stakeholders, including the political executive, are on board and there are all encompassing directions of the highest Court of the land, still the system is held hostage to contemptuous file notings of lower level officials purportedly based on some legal advice egging on the establishment to file appeals against verdicts rendered in favour of disabled soldiers, and the Headquarters of the Defence Services are also meekly accepting this bloodbath without taking a strong stand on file by pointing out this malaise to the powers that be.

In the ultimate analysis, it seems that it is not the directions of the Apex Court or the will of the political executive that would be allowed to prevail in our homeland, but the sadistic urge of a few stray voices that are holding the morale of our nation to ransom. The Courts are clogged with mundane disputes and unwanted litigation thereby burdening the judiciary to unprecedented levels, and here we are, in this great nation of ours, wasting taxpayers’ money in fighting cases against our own disabled soldiers, the ones who silently sacrificed their health to protect us.

Shame on all of us.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Disability/Casualty Awards revised with arrears from 01 Jan 2006 rather than 24 Sept 2012, by the Department of Pension & Pensioners’ Welfare, expect orders for defence pensioners soon

In July last year, the Central Government had issued orders revising the pensions of central govt pensioners after removal of the anomaly of ‘minimum of pay band’ versus ‘minimum of pay within the pay band’ from 01-01-2006 rather than the artificial future cut-off date of 24-09-2012. This was based on the decision of various High Courts as affirmed by the Supreme Court. This was followed by orders by the Ministry of Defence for military pensioners in September.

The parallel rates for disability and casualty awards however had not been revised by the Central Government w.e.f 01-01-2006 and the file had remained pending with the Ministry of Finance.

The orders have now been issued by the Department of Pension & Pensioners’ Welfare (DoPPW) and all disability and death related benefits now stand revised from 01-01-2006 rather than 24-09-2012 and arrears shall be released for the period 01-01-2006 till 23-09-2012 to all affected retirees. The orders can be downloaded by clicking here

The DoPPW is the nodal ministry for issuance of such orders and similar orders would now be notified by the Railways and the MoD after suitable amendments, for their own retirees/family pensioners in due course. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Rumours on military promotion boards, and then some....

The Tribune has today reported that the defence minister, while addressing senior military commanders, has clarified that he had not passed any instructions for some sort of civilian oversight in military promotion boards as rumoured.

If it is true that the Minister has made this statement, then I am glad on this proactive step of clearing the air since this was a regrettable rumour doing the rounds and which was also unfortunately bought by many (otherwise well meaning) senior retired veterans. It had been incorrectly stated that the Minister had passed directions that civilian officers shall be members of promotion boards of the defence services.

The truth is totally the opposite and the rumour has other origins. In fact, the issue had not even emanated from the Minister or his office and relates to the Committee of Experts constituted by the Government, of which even I was one of the Members.

Within the military environment, there are murmurs regarding lack of transparency in selection boards. Some may call it perceived, some may label it real, but a fact that cannot be ignored is that there has been a spurt in complaints related to this aspect. To counter this, the Ministry of Defence came up with the suggestion of a civilian member in promotion boards of the defence services. This recommendation was deliberated by the ibid Committee of Experts specifically constituted to look into ways of reducing litigation and improving redressal of grievances, and ultimately the said proposal of the Ministry was REJECTED. Instead, we recommended the strengthening of the existing system of observers by providing that out of the total observers, two could be from sister services or even civilians (not Civil Servants) to alleviate any negative perception. Hence the rumours were wrong on various levels- Firstly, there were no such directions from the Minister, in fact, the Minister did not interfere at all with the Panel and rather wanted us to be totally objective and truthful. Secondly, the proposal was initiated due to constant complaints by serving officers of the defence services and not by the Ministry on its own volition. Thirdly, the said proposal was rejected and we did not agree with the Ministry. Fourthly, the system of observers already exists and the ultimate recommendation was to continue with the same with the minor change as above and without any voting rights.  

I sincerely feel that attempts should be made to verify facts before floating messages which have the propensity to damage institutions and cause disaffection. Also, ultimately the military must, and would have to, yield to transparency which is a pertinent need in this time and age, except in operational and strategic matters, to counterbalance both sides of the spectrum and offset misgivings. We would be indulging in the greatest disservice if we close our eyes and rationalize or attempt to justify that all is well. Since apparently there is nothing to hide, measures of openness should rather be welcomed. A closed non-dynamic system resting on the supposedly ‘time-tested’ past laurels may ultimately be counterproductive. There is no right or wrong in many of such issues and it is the duty of all stakeholders to ensure objectivity and lower the levels of dissatisfaction. Of course, for that, we need to have an unbolted mind and not react negatively to every hint of a wind of change. As Kennedy once addressed, “conformity is the jailer of freedom and enemy of growth”.

I hope we can rise to the occasion and become mature enough to debate the merits and demerits of adjustments and readjustments in the existing dispensation with the openness it deserves

Monday, April 11, 2016

Independence and objectivity of thought and action

An interesting article by Tim Dunne on Military Justice in Canada (Military Justice, past its “best-before” date) was published in Frontline Defence.

While referring to Justice LeSage’s ‘independent review’ of the system of military justice, the author states the following regarding the inputs made available to the Justice and then asks a very pertinent question:

“...In his foreword, Justice LeSage noted the cadre of professionals who provided “valuable comments, recommendations and observations that have helped […] shape the content of the Report. That list includes Colonel Patrick K. Gleeson (Deputy Judge Advocate General/Chief of Staff); Colonel Michael Gibson (Deputy Judge Advocate General – Military Justice); and numerous other members of JAG, who undertook “the considerable challenge of educating me, regarding the military justice system.” He also added Major Patrick Vermette (Directorate of Law – Military Justice – Strategic) “who shepherded us through all the base visits, was unwavering in his patience, courtesy, and providing me with invaluable information and guidance throughout this process.”
This begs the question, with so much participation by Judge Advocate General legal staff in educating Justice LeSage, just how independent was his “independent review”?
Sadly missing from the list of educators and advisors is an advocate for the sailors, the soldiers and the air force personnel whose lives are so profoundly affected by the National Defence Act...”
Why I have reproduced the above is because the same reminds me of the praise showered by the Seventh Central Pay Commission in its foreword on a member of the Indian Defence Accounts Service for his intricate knowledge of defence financial matters which helped the commission in “determining the pay structure for the defence services”.

And what about those who were affected, those who were at the receiving end?


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Biggest news of 2016 for Central Government pensioners

Most readers would be aware that the orders regarding calculation of pension of pre-2006 retirees based on minimum of pay within the pay band for each separate grade/rank and not on minimum of the pay band itself, with arrears from 01-01-2006 rather than 24-09-2012, were issued for Central Government pensioners in July 2015 by the Government as per the decision of the Delhi High Court, which essentially followed a decision of the Punjab & Haryana High Court, and then upheld by the Supreme Court. The High Court had held that the anomaly (though later removed by the Government itself from 24-09-2012) had to be removed from the date of the inception of the anomaly, that is, 01-01-2006. Similar orders were later issued by the Ministry of Defence.

On a similar analogy, many decisions by various Benches of the Central Administrative Tribunal (and then upheld by the High Courts) were rendered de-linking the service requirement of 33 years for grant of full pension for pre-2006 retirees at par with post-2006 retirees for whom there is no such requirement. Some Special Leave Petitions preferred by the Government against such orders were also dismissed, though not by way of detailed decisions. The Punjab  Haryana High Court had also passed a detailed verdict on the same subject for pensioners of the Central Armed Police Forces. Till date, the pensions of pre-2006 pensioners with less than 33 years of service (including weightage) were being calculated by way of proportionate reduction.

Through this earlier post dated 22-01-2016, in view of multiple queries in this regard, I had informed by way of general information that the matter of issuance of orders on this subject for similarly placed retirees was being examined by the Department of Pensions & Pensioners’ Welfare, Ministry of Law & Justice and Ministry of Finance.

The Department of Pensions and Pensioners’ Welfare has now issued universal orders giving effect to the judicial decisions of the High Courts and has removed the requirement of 33 years service for full pension. Now, irrespective of length of service, all pre-2006 pensioners shall be eligible for full pension as is admissible to those pre-2006 pensioners who had rendered 33 years or more service including weightage. Full arrears are also admissible with effect from 01-01-2006. The biggest gainers would be voluntary retirees and those released from service on medical grounds or before completing full service. The orders can be downloaded by clicking here. Similar orders should now be issued for defence pensioners also by the Ministry of Defence.

A word of caution- This change would not affect the concept of One Rank One Pension (OROP) applicable with effect from 2014 since while this development is based on 50% of minimum emoluments introduced by the 6th Central Pay Commission for each grade, the concept of OROP is based on live data of actual pension based on real time emoluments as per length of service of in-service personnel. Readers are hence requested not to mix up the two dispensations which operate by way of separate dynamics. 

We must again place on record extreme gratitude to the Department of Pensions and Pensioners’ Welfare functioning under Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances & Pensions which has once again taken a stand for all Central Government pensioners and ensured issuance of universal directions just on simple dismissal of a Special Leave Petition by the Supreme Court even without a detailed order. One cannot also help but compare this with the attitude of the Ministry of Defence which continues to file appeals against its pensioners and disabled pensioners based on artificial distinctions even when the law has been fully settled by the Supreme Court in a plethora of detailed landmark decisions and which also militates against the grain of the opinion expressed by the highest of political executive, including the Prime Minister. I however maintain and retain full hope that the current Raksha Mantri would be able to rein in the unruly horses.  

Jai Hind. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Circle of infinity

How easy it is not to take a decision and to send any welfare oriented proposal into an orbit of perpetuity in India!

This short post, with a particular example related to the military, is just a reflection on what all is wrong with our governmental systems and which consequently afflicts every single wing of governance and is imbibed by many of those who are in public service, including the military.

Many anomalies arise in Government policies related to pay, allowances and pensions from time to time. Of course, since these emanate from letters issued by the Government at various levels, the same authorities are competent to cure those defects. But to avoid resolution, things are given a different twist. Let us take the example of pay and other related anomalies of the defence services. A Committee of Secretaries was specially set up by the last Government to look into some such anomalies related to the military. But rather than resolving the same or attempting to find a solution, it was recommended by the Committee that the said anomalies should be referred to the Pay Commission being an expert body in the subject. But why should existing and identified anomalies in Government policies be looked into by a Pay Commission when under the Rules of Business the Central Government itself is competent to alter or amend those policies? And then what happens, when referred to the Pay Commission, the said Commission does not comment on the referred points at all, or throws the ball back into the Government’s court asking the latter to look into the same, thereby relegating affected personnel by ten or twenty or even thirty years since it is only after a decade that a Pay Commission is constituted.

So where does this end? Nowhere. The Circle of infinity.

One can only hope that the current Government takes a hard look at all pending issues and decides the same, this way or that way, to end the lingering suspense.  

Friday, March 25, 2016

Redressal of Grievances in the Defence Services: Testing times!

Mixed feelings is how I would rudimentarily describe the moment I read the news about the Defence Minister’s retort to the Defence Services for seeking to take action against those who complain to him directly.

On one hand came the realization that in no hierarchical organization would jumping the queue be taken very kindly since it does affect command and control in a way. But on the other side of the spectrum, my mind was divided as to what would then be the answer if a person is not heard by his or her own or if he or she is blocked from informing the authorities up the chain!

There can be no easy answers and thus the predicament in my mind persists.

In an ideal situation, hopping the chain is not apt. But then, as I say always, we do not live in an ideal world and there can be no mathematical or straitjacket solutions to such situations.

The reaction of many senior retired officers to the news above was that it would disturb the equilibrium of the defence services and encouraging personnel to directly approach the very top is not a healthy phenomenon. There can be no cavil with this proposition. But have we introspected as to why things have come to such a pass? That answer is not far to seek- that clearly the system of redressal of grievances is in shambles which is why unconventional or rather non-regulation methods are being employed by those who are not being heard or who perceive themselves as not being heard. There is no sounding board. There is no catharsis.

It is well known that non-statutory or statutory complaints, especially by the lower ranks, are not being decided in the prescribed time-period and at times linger on till inordinately long periods and by the time the relief becomes redundant in many cases. It may not be out of place to mention that the time limit prescribed for redressal of such grievances by the Government of India is 3 months and in the services the time limit prescribed for decisions on statutory complaints is 6 months, but even that is not adhered to in most cases. The military does not even encourage complaints, especially by the lower ranks, and most of the personnel keep groping in the dark about the ‘format’ of such complaints and many of these are returned by various intermediary authorities indulging in infructuous correspondence for not being in the ‘prescribed format’ or due to other hyper-technical reasons. Some of the personnel posted in remote locations are also consigned to the backboard of red-tape and left scampering for formats and all that wondrous jazz. Worse, the statistics would prove that relief is finally granted only in a minuscule number. Pulling strings and over-reliance on file notings, at times initiated by those who have been complained against, in case of all ranks, is also an open secret and no amount of denial could hide this reality.

In such a scenario, what do you expect? Frustration of course, which finally manifests itself in skipping the hierarchy. And once that happens, can such behaviour be truly blamed on the individuals when it emanates from our own deficiencies?  

In a changing world and changing dynamics of public grievances and interactive formats, including social media, it would be futile to rely upon outdated practices or live in a time warp. While formal complaints cannot be initiated to one’s seniors in the hierarchy directly bypassing the proper channel, there is no strict bar on informal letters, including Demi Official communications, which are simply now being substituted by emails and informal electronic communications to seniors and hence may not exactly fall foul of regulations since these are not formal ‘complaints’ but mere written substitutes for face to face interaction. The way to avoid this is to brace up with the times we live in and make grievance redressal receptive, humane, objective and quicker. True, there are incorrigible elements and habitual complainants but genuine grievances cannot be subsumed by disputable ones. We also need to introspect as to why Demi Official letters are commonplace with officers but similar informal communications frowned upon when initiated by other ranks. 

One of the cardinal references to the Committee of Experts constituted by the Raksha Mantri, of which I too was a Member, was strengthening of the system of redressal of grievances in the defence services. The issue, which has been engaging the attention of the Minister, weighed heavily on our minds also, especially on my senior colleagues, who with their progressive approach were totally attuned to the changing interface of modern life in the age of internet and social media, after which we had recommended a few changes in the existing dispensation. Some of these were providing a better system of personal interaction and opportunity of hearing, reducing red-tapism and hyper-technical approach in grievances redressal mechanism, initiating faster redressal and following existing Government of India guidelines for the same. Some of these have been enumerated in Paragraphs 3.3.2, 3.3.3, 4.2.2, 4.2.5, 4.2.7, 7.2 and 7.4 of the Report which now stands declassified. I would be failing in my duty if I do not mention that many senior officers of the Defence Services Headquarters were also concerned about mandating improvement in the existing mechanisms and were not oblivious to the contours of the subject.  

Just as the head of an organization is supposed to be in the know of all that is happening under him, the Defence Minister is doing a good job in ensuring that systems work. He is not an outsider external to the chain of command; he is the political executive heading the Ministry of Defence. In my opinion, he is not micromanaging, he is not encouraging personnel to bypass the existing channels, but only functioning as a de facto ombudsman for ensuring that in the long run the systems are so well oiled that personnel get the desired decisions and redressal at the lowest possible level within the laid down time-limits. His methods may be unconventional, but for that, we should be thankful that he is taking active interest in the portfolio allotted to him and also that he cannot be evaded by the talent of wiliness and craftiness.

The discussion makes me want to recapitulate what the Delhi High Court stated in 2004 on the fine balance between discipline and fairness:

“...Discipline is highly desirable and is essential for achieving the purpose for which Armed Forces have been created and set up. However, in order to obtain discipline and obedience, it is essential that the personnel of the Armed Forces are dealt with an innate fairness and justice is meted out to the members of the Forces. This is necessary to not only ensure discipline but to motivate these brave soldiers who perform their duties in the service of the nation and who have to be motivated to lay down their lives to the cause of the nation. When guidelines have been laid down and procedures prescribed they should be applied to the letter lest the same shall result in demoralization in the lines and ranks of the forces which may lead to insubordination and indiscipline...”

Ideally hence, there should be no occasion to bypass the existing channels for redressal of grievances but it is ultimately for the system to ensure that the rank and file repose so much faith in it that they do not run helter-skelter. For sure our systems are time-tested, but then the times have changed and we need to match up and catch up. And till that happens, till our systems adjust with the times we live in, there are bound to be minor corrections and tribulations which we must take in our stride.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Defence Services: whipping boy for the merchants of falsehood

I am not ideologically aligned. I am also not much enthused by the two extremes of the national and anti-national debate since the foundations of India can hardly be shaken by polarized views at both ends. I am not against human rights activists since checks and balances, arguments and counter arguments, make any system more robust. I am even not impressed by retired officers of the military shouting out loud about the ‘sacrifices’ of our uniformed personnel as if other professions have no role to play in the largest democracy. I would say that the milkman who rings your bell every morning is playing an equally important role.

But then, this piece by Kavita Krishnan with a shrill headline talking of ‘Systematic Sexual Violence by the Army’ still makes me queasy. And it is not a random write-up but a drop in a series of such propaganda.

Never the one to defend wrongdoing by uniformed men and women, even by my harsh standards, this tirade mainstreams stray incidents of the past. It broad-brushes an entire organization based on individual aberrations. Should it mean, and I asked this on social media, that tomorrow if a university professor is involved in a theft, we blast off with lines like “Systematic Theft by Teachers”. Or if a Chartered Accountant is involved in an economic offence, “Systematic Fraud by CAs”? No end to such senseless overstretching of logic! How loosely has the word ‘systematic’ been used, where is the data? Where is the empirical backup?

Strange also is the bogey raised time and again by some members of the intelligentsia that the Defence Services let off lightly their personnel accused of crimes. In fact, the opposite is true. Constitutional Courts have time and again reprimanded the Defence Services for awarding punishments that are disproportionate to the offence. We ourselves feel that at times charges are trumped up and exaggerated and a single offence broken up into multiple charges. We have, on the contrary, raised a voice that military law does not meet Constitutional or international norms under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights for separation of powers. And we say this since we find that though discipline is paramount for the forces, the basic judicial norms are hazy in the military leading sometimes to excessive punishment and a much higher incidence of conviction and punishment than normal rates, arguably in order to ‘set examples’. Military Justice hence needs to be rationalized, but not since it lets off people scot-free as is being wrongly propagated, but since, it, at times, results in harsher punishments than warranted.

Any person who has served in uniform, especially of the Defence Services and the Central Armed Police Forces, would be able to say with certainty that much of the officers’ time in operational areas is spent on sensitizing troops on dealing perceptively with the elderly, women and children. Not just in India, but almost in all democracies. Black sheep, just as they exist in our society, are bound to be found in the uniformed forces, being the extension of the same society.

My request to Ms Kavita Krishnan would plainly be not to scandalize the very delicate issue of crime against women. Such baseless headlining not only results in painting a wrong picture of our forces but also trivializes the very grave matter of sexual violence by giving it a backdrop of falsehood. The only thing systematic here is the careful surgical maligning of our forces in an irresponsible and unethical manner. Our forces are being projected as some ragtag militia from the middle ages.

But more than that, it demoralizes our men and women in uniform, who are serving in trying circumstances away from their families, but who, unlike Ms Krishnan, rather unlike all of us, do not have the luxury of effectively voicing their opinion or issuing rebuttals or writing opinion pieces and participating in debates. In fact, bound by service regulations, they have no voice at all, which makes them an extremely soft target.  

India believes in defence services, not offence services, as some would try to fallaciously project. Do not make them your whipping boy.