The following op-ed was published @ Rediff on OROP and also the need to look beyond the same:
Soldiers’ Welfare: Prime Minister proposes, bureaucratic machination disposes
The bogey of the “paramilitary” perceivably demanding the applicability of “One Rank One Pension” (OROP) at par with the military is yet another case of throwing an additional spanner in the works by the lower bureaucracy of our great nation, thereby totally confusing the political executive.
As most even slightly connected with the subject would be aware, though concept of OROP seems ideal for all government employees, it is the defence services which deserve it the most and the foremost because of their early retirement with no guarantee of post-release employment.
What should put the otiose comparison to rest is the fact that while personnel of the defence services start retiring at the age of 34 onwards, members of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) are released in their late 50s. So at certain ranks, the latter serve even two decades more than the former thereby not only garnering higher lifetime earnings and financial protection but also multiple pay and emolument revisions due to the fact that they get the benefit of serving during the currency of subsequent pay commissions by which time their comrades in the military may have long retired, and some, faded away.
It is an open secret that accountants and lower bureaucracy in the Ministry of Defence have always misguided the higher bureaucracy and military brass and also the political executive of the reality concerning the defence services. File notings are prepared in a mischievous manner so as to elicit negative replies. Not only their own bosses, but an attempt is made to fool even the Courts and Parliamentary committees, or else how could one justify the straight lie peddled by the Ministry of Defence before the Koshiyari Committee of 2011 that OROP would be difficult to implement since documents of defence personnel are destroyed after 25 years? Hogwash it was since it is the documents of non-pensioners which are destroyed after 25 years while the documents of pensioners (to whom OROP applies) are retained till perpetuity.
While I have full faith in the Prime Minister’s commitment towards OROP, and also of Mr Manohar Parrikar, who is as well-intentioned as one can get, I would just want to warn them not to take at face-value what is presented to them by the bottom of the hierarchy. It is the political executive through the higher bureaucracy from the top that has to impose the policy decisions on to the lower layers and not the other way round. The Government has to be run by the top echelons and not by the army of Section Officers and Under Secretaries. Policy has to be determined by the Government under the Rules of Business and not by Accountants of the Defence Accounts Department. Decisions must be taken by due discussion and inputs from experts and insulation from reality by a coterie ensconced in a web of negativity should be avoided. The attempt to water down the definition of OROP must also be fervently resisted. There is only one definition of OROP, and that stands solidified by the Government itself- similar amount of pension for each rank with similar length of total service, with the benefit of future enhancements passed on to past retirees.
Which also brings me to the role of military veteran organisations. Veterans should not jump the gun with every move or indication that they perceive to be against them. Instead they should be united, not bicker amongst themselves, shun their differences, present a cohesive front and then fight for their rights in a dignified manner. Statements of no less than the Prime Minister assuring veterans of his concern should not be brushed aside lightly and the tendency of hyper-technical hairsplitting of every public announcement with a negative connotation is best avoided, more so when we are so close to the goal. Due regard should definitely be rendered to what the Prime Minister has stated, but that is again not to say that in a free democracy we are entitled to advise others to muzzle their voices but one can definitely counsel to dignify the tone.
One can hope that now that the issue is in national consciousness it is implemented swiftly. It is also hoped that all stakeholders, including military veteran bodies, would not lose sight of other insidious, and in fact, even more important issues that are staring them straight and which may not be glamorous enough or monetary in nature but still are a cause of major concern. Pertinent amongst these being the way disabled soldiers are treated by the system with the official establishment filing appeals till the Supreme Court in cases of disability pension awarded to disabled soldiers by Courts and Tribunals, the constant decline of the status and the sheen of the military rank in the official pecking order and also the society at large, guaranteed post-retirement employment with protection of military status and dignity, and most importantly the recent Supreme Court decision rendered on a plea of the Ministry of Defence and the Army wherein it was held that soldiers, veterans and military widows aggrieved by decisions of the Armed Forces Tribunal would not be able to approach the High Courts for relief- a disaster since it has snatched a fundamental right that is otherwise available to every citizen and also to similarly placed civil government employees of approaching the High Court under the writ jurisdiction and thereby leaving the military community remediless thus making the Armed Forces Tribunal the first and the last court for them with no tiers or layers of judicial hierarchy at their disposal which is guaranteed to all citizens in all democracies. An unaffordable and inaccessible direct appeal to the Supreme Court under the Armed Forces Tribunal Act is also only permissible if the matter involves a “point of law of general public importance”, which is not the case with 99.99% of litigation before the Tribunal. This has come as the biggest blow since independence, but veterans, totally engrossed in OROP, do not seem to have realized the gravity of the situation.
While OROP remains an important emotive issue for veterans, the focus hence should not just remain limited to it but also on subjects which on the surface do not seem attractive enough since these have no nexus with finances, but affect the very basic existential rights of the military community which stand obliterated for them but remain available to all other citizens.
While summing up, we, as citizens, should hope and pray that the Prime Minister’s sentiment is not held ransom by machinations and craftiness of a few junior babus who throw in an imaginary impediment at every welfare measure and resultantly snigger and giggle at the sidelines every time a soldier is ill at ease, and also trust that the veteran community continues to pay attention to persistent issues that will haunt their survival in life that shall be beyond their current aim- OROP.
Major Navdeep Singh is a practicing Advocate in the Punjab & Haryana High Court and the Armed Forces Tribunal. He was the founding President of the Armed Forces Tribunal Bar Association. He is a Member of the International Society for Military Law and the Law of War at Brussels. He is also the author of “Maimed by the System”, a collection of real life accounts of military veterans and their families who had to fight to claim their rights.