My op-ed published in The Hindu:
Questions of Compensation
India has the distinction of exhibiting disdain towards the cause of disabled soldiers
Quite a paradox India is. While on one hand there is excessive chest-thumping for our men and women in uniform, on the other we pride ourselves in laying a constant siege on the benefits and legal rights of those very personnel whom we superficially cheer during parades.
Bearing the brunt at the forefront are our disabled soldiers. The deleterious effect of stress and strain of military service on health is a universally recognised phenomenon. Nations go out of the way to make lives more comfortable for their troops with rising payouts for their loss of health, but India has the unique distinction of showing utter disdain towards the cause of disabled soldiers. At a very rudimentary level, it is questioned, mostly by defence accountants, as to how ailments such as heart disease, neurosis, backache, seizures et al, which are also common in civilians, could be affected or aggravated by military service. Well, it is not quite complex to discern that a highly regimented life away from family most of the year- at times under the shadow of the gun, inability to cope up with domestic commitments, lack of community living, lack of sexual fulfillment and physical proximity, curtailed freedoms and rights, all lead to aggravation of common medical conditions. The life of military or even paramilitary troopers who are on duty 24 hours a day and who require the permission of their seniors to even use the washroom or visit a market after signing multiple registers, cannot be compared with those employees who are living with their families and working fixed office hours five days a week.
The inherently balanced disability rules, in India and other democracies, aptly provide that there is a presumption of service-connection of disabilities incurred during military service, but our army of accountants and financial wizards mostly reject such disability claims leading to judicial intervention. However when disability benefits are awarded by Courts and Tribunals after a long haul, the Ministry of Defence appeals against disabled soldiers till the highest Court of the land, at times for amounts of a few hundred rupees. In the year 2012-2013, ninety percent of all appeals filed in the Supreme Court by the Ministry of Defence were against disabled soldiers, a shamefully dubious distinction. The efforts of the current Defence Minister to control the litigation malaise are being met with strong resistance from the official-legal ecosystem which thrives on the miseries of disabled soldiers.
A recent example of this attitude was the sadistic recommendation of the 7th Central Pay Commission for slashing disability pension rates which created quite a commotion. Out of the blue, without there being any demand for it, the commission made an observation that there was an increase in the percentage of disabled officers in the defence services vis-a-vis lower ranks and hence the benefits needed to be slashed from the ‘percentage of pay system’ to a ‘slab system’ which would be more equitable for ranks other than officers. It was recommended that from the current formula of ‘30% of pay for 100% disability’, disability element should be granted at the fixed rate of Rs 27000, 17000 and 12000 for Commissioned Officers, Junior Commissioned Officers and Other Ranks respectively for 100% disability, proportionately reduced for lesser disability. Surprisingly, no such corresponding ‘equitable’ change was recommended for civilian disability pensioners, including those from the Central Armed Police Forces, who continue to receive benefits on ‘percentage of pay’ basis.
Needless to state, statistically, there is higher probability of incurring disability by officers than jawans since while the latter start retiring in their 30s with about fifteen years plus of service, officers retire in their 50s with a service spanning thirty years or more. What reflects a heartless mindset however is that instead of being concerned about the increasing stress and strain in the military and a deteriorating health profile and also the recorded information that military personnel are dying earlier than their civilian counterparts, the commission went ahead and cast aspersions on the maimed and the infirm. Which sane nation would condone this?
Shockingly, the above recommendation was made suo moto based on some data provided by the Defence Accounts Department to the commission without being authenticated by the Defence Services and without even granting a chance of discussion or rebuttal to the stakeholders. The jugglery is even more jarring since the slab system would result in a better payout only to those rare cases in the lower ranks who are medically boarded out in the beginning of their careers, while it results in a loss to all those jawans who are released on completion of regular service terms. In the higher ranks, the difference is even more outrageous. Whereas a 100% disabled Lieutenant General who was in receipt of disability element of Rs 52,560 as on 31-12-2015 would now be relegated to Rs 27000 on 01-01-2016, his civilian counterpart, who was at par, would now receive Rs 67,500. While the pay commission handsomely increased all pensions, including civil disability pensions, it slashed military disability pensions drastically- at places by more than half. The fact that certain vested interests chose to inject twisted figures on this sensitive issue on to social media platforms citing ‘government sources’ sets an even more dangerous tone.
One cannot just help thinking about the futility of all that pomp and show and regalia at military displays or revelling in our military achievements if we cannot sensitively take care of our disabled soldiers. Can we live with the hope that one day the establishment might perhaps find some other punching bag to expend its negative energy, leaving this minuscule and frail portion of our veterans in peace?