With many aspects of personnel policies, pensionary provisions and administrative issues delegated by the Govt to the military establishment, one had hoped things would improve, with more sensitivity being brought into the system, especially since peers would be dealing with cases of their brethren thereby ensuring a humane and meticulous approach in dealing with the problems of military veterans and their families, especially disabled soldiers and widows.
But I don’t think we are getting the message.
Things are bad.
Where is the problem? The problem lies in the lack of basic understanding of administrative issues and even a miniscule application of mind. To top that, there’s this egotistic lakeer ke fakeer attitude and lack of moral courage to admit any wrongdoing.
I would not be exaggerating in saying that about 25% of our veterans and military widows, as on date, are not in receipt of their correct entitlements. The problem is not single layered and is a resultant of a labyrinth of negativity let loose by the Record Offices, account bodies and Pension Disbursing Authorities. Even the system of provisioning information under the RTI Act is collapsing, and Public Information Officers and also the Appellate Authorities are not even aware of basic provisions of law. What pains me more is not the impediments created by external bodies, but by our own, the kind reflected in my OPed on the subject earlier this year.
While some Record Offices such as those of the Sikh Regiment, the Armoured Corps, the Mechanized Infantry and the Sappers go out of their way to help out their soldiers and families, others such as the Punjab Regiment and Artillery Records leave much to be desired in their approach and a major gap between what can be legitimately expected and what is practically done on ground.
In vein of some posts of this kind, I would like to share some examples of what I say above so that it is not just labelled hearsay:
1. The case of Pawittar Singh: This Gunner was released from service on the grounds of conviction in a civil case. He sought details under the RTI Act on the policy dealing with the reinstatement or notional reinstatement of individuals who are discharged or dismissed on the basis of conviction but are later honourably acquitted by the Court of law, and other factual details regarding his own case. At first, the Artillery Records Office asked him to get his signatures on the RTI Application attested from the Sarpanch of his village, of course a procedure unknown and alien to law. Still, in order to avoid delay, he submitted his application again alongwith attestation from his Sarpanch, but this time his application was rejected on the pretext that the information sought by him is not related to public interest. Imagine, seeking a copy of a Govt policy and details of his own case not being related to public interest. Where does the man go? Record Offices do not reply to regular letters written to them, information under the RTI Act is stonewalled with banal excuses. What would be the outcome of this, the veteran would be forced into litigation, first making rounds of the Information Commission since the information has been denied, and then when he gets the information, he would be forced to approach the competent judicial forum to seek relief. Who gains by this?
2. The case of Ex-Hav Harbans Singh: Again of the Artillery Records. The soldier had sought a copy of his Release Medical Board under the RTI Act but the copy that was provided was blank where the attributability/aggravation of disability is mentioned and also where the percentage of disability is recorded. When he pointed this out in detail again to the Records office, another reply has been received in which the concerned Records Officer without even caring to properly read the letter has mechanically replied that the RMB has already been provided. Where does this man go? To the Central Information Commission at Delhi, thereby waiting for another one year? And why? Because one clerk sitting at the Records Office failed to read simple English and the concerned Records Officer simply affixed his signatures on a reply prepared by a clerk?
3. The case of Territorial Army personnel of Punjab Regiment invalided out of service: TA personnel who are invalided out of service with attributable/aggravated disabilities are entitled to disability benefits including rounding-off of disability element of pension which is explicitly mentioned in the Govt of India letter dated 31-01-2001 itself, the said letter also clearly makes it applicable to TA personnel. However, the clerical staff of Punjab Regimental Records is not processing the claims of disability benefits of such personnel on the pretext that TA personnel are not entitled to such benefits. The biggest tragedy is that even the office of the PCDA(P) has reportedly telephonically asked the concerned Records Office to properly process the claims of disabled TA personnel but to no avail. A personal letter written by me to the Commandant/OIC Records has also elicited no reply and it seems that nobody wants to apply mind and redress the grievance. It is yet another story that other Record Offices are properly processing similar claims and the PCDA(P) is resultantly issuing the requisite Pension Payment Orders (PPOs) without any problem whatsoever. Where does this lead the affected disabled personnel? Rounds of Courts? Isn’t this unwanted litigation? In yet another case of another disabled invalided Sepoy of the Regular Army from the Punjab Regiment named Harjinder Singh, the soldier has been asked to submit a form for claiming rounding-off benefits whereas the soldier is a post-96 retiree and the format is only applicable to pre-96 retirees since the system of rounding-off was initially implemented only for post-96 retirees with effect from 01-01-1996 and was then extended to pre-96 retirees in 2010. The paper chase with the Records Office of one of the oldest regiments continues for this soldier too.
4. The case of Sep Surender Singh of the JAT Regiment: This Sepoy was invalided out but not granted disability pension. Thereafter, the AFT directed the grant of disability pension to him which was then implemented by the Govt after which a PPO was duly issued with a copy endorsed to the Records Office. However the PPO contained an incorrect date of implementation and grant of arrears. The PPO and the Govt sanction had also directed for a Re-Survey Medical Board (RSMB) before 16 July 2012 for continuance of disability pension. The individual therefore sought information regarding this mistake in the PPO from the Records Office which resulted in denial of pension for 10 years’ period. However strangely the Records Office replied that they did not have the record of any such PPO issued in the individual’s name. Needless to say, the Govt sanction was itself processed by the Records Office and it became clear from the copy of the PPO that it was very much forwarded to the Records Office. When the office of the PCDA(P) was further contacted as to why disability element had not been continued beyond July 2012, they replied that they had not continued the disability pension beyond the date since the Records Office had not forwarded the papers or any claim for disability pension to them. The soldier as on date remains without disability element of pension despite a Court order and acceptance by way of a Govt sanction and the Records Office even denies the existence of his PPO or medical board in his file. Where does he go? More litigation?
5. Personnel of ecological battalions of Territorial Army affiliated with Garhwal Rifles: TA personnel are entitled to pension after rendering 15 years of embodied (colour/physical service) without exception. However, personnel of ecological TA battalions were being denied this pension by the Records office of the Garhwal Rifles even on completing 15 years of embodied service on the pretext of an Army HQ letter of the year 2003 which stated that since ecological units were sponsored by Ministry of Environment and Forests, personnel serving on the strength of Eco TA units were not entitled to pension from the defence ministry. Needless to state, the Govt had never issued any such prohibition for such personnel. This controversy later got resolved when the Army HQ in 2007 clarified the issue by withdrawing the earlier communication and by stating that pension is admissible to such personnel also and there was no such prohibition imposed by the Govt. A similar clarification was issued by the CGDA too. Despite the fact that the Army HQ letter issued later has been pointed out to the Records Office of Garhwal Rifles, the Records Office continues to reject claims based on the outdated letter issued in 2003. Who gains by this? Isn’t it incumbent upon the Records Office to simply apply mind and read what is provided in letters issued by competent authority?
6. RTI Appellate Mechanism at the Army HQ: Usually, the PIO of the Army at the Army HQ is very prompt and efficient in providing information. However, the problem is that the PIO is dependent upon other directorates for information and at times the correct information is not received for further dissemination. Most of the times when proper information is not received and the appellate authority (Provost Marshall) is approached under Section 19 of the RTI Act, a similar sounding non-speaking mechanical order is received by most inter alia stating the following:-
“And now therefore after having perused all records and after hearing views of nodal offices, I find that adequate available information has already been provisioned by the CPIO vide letter…..”
Of course, as per actual law, the Appellate Authority is supposed to deal with the grounds raised by the appellant, discuss the points of disagreement and pass a detailed order providing reasons for his decision and not just mechanically agree with what has been done. A recent live case is one in which on 20-07-2012 information was sought similar to Para (1) above wherein the policy on reinstatement/notional pension to those personnel who are dismissed on the basis of conviction and later acquitted was sought from the Army HQ under the RTI Act. Rather than providing this policy, the PIO at the Army HQ on 26-09-2012 provided a completely different policy dealing with suspension of pension of military pensioners. This was appealed against by the Appellant on 05-10-2012 but the Appellate Authority on 19-11-2012 without even applying mind on what had been asked for and what had been given or considering what had been stated in the appeal before him, has mechanically decided the case stating that “adequate information” had been provided by the CPIO. The Appellate Authority also directed the Discipline and Vigilance Directorate to provide a copy of a note submitted by the said Directorate to the Appellate Authority with annexures to the appellant. But readers would be surprised with what that note was. That note was a copy of a letter dealing with delegation of administrative powers to the Services HQ with no link whatsoever with the subject of the information sought. So what was sought, what was provided by the PIO and what was then provided by the DV Directorate were three different things and the Appellate Authority seems oblivious of what he has been made to sign! What is the ultimate net result? Moving the information commission for a two-paged policy which simply could have been provided had the concerned officers cared to just read the RTI Application or could be simply made available to the public at large on the official website of the organization. Alas even the Appellate Authority is functioning in a perfunctory manner unaware of what is coming before him and what he’s signing and is not being provided the adequate administrative or legal assistance as is most required in such situations.
The aim of highlighting some of above instances is not to pinprick but to make the environment realize how their lack of knowledge, interest and basic application of mind is hitting us hard. An earlier case of Surjit Kaur whose husband serving with the pre-independence Punjab Regiment was declared as a soldier of the Burmese Army adequately rounds up how sensitive issues are dealt with.
These were just a few examples of recent times which I had the unfortunate privilege of perusing, there are thousands more, crying out for barest of sensitivity, but the shrieks go unheeded.