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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. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Govt of India issues guidelines on recovery of excess amount from employees

The issue of recovery of excess amount from pensioners and employees has remained quite vexed since the past many years. The problem was compounded with the Supreme Court taking a varied view in various decisions.

Going into great detail of the subject, the Supreme Court in December 2014 however laid down the law quite clearly in Stateof Punjab Vs Rafiq Masih wherein certain guidelines were postulated for such cases.

To the credit of the Central Government, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) has today issued a universal circular implementing the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court in the ibid case.

The circular is significant since it is probably for the first time that a department has floated a universally applicable pro-employee circular in this regard. Though departments are quick in circulating decisions of High Courts and Supreme Court rendered against employees, it is rarely that a similar exercise is conducted when law is laid down in favour of employees or retirees.

The said Office Memorandum issued today, detailing the cases where recovery is impermissible, can be accessed and downloaded by clicking here.