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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.