Defence

Soldiers’ lament

Print edition : June 12, 2015

Retired defence personnel on a fast for justice at the Mahatma Gandhi statue on M.G. Road in Bangalore on May 27, 2008. They are still waiting for the implementation of One Rank One Pension. Photo: K. Gopinathan

Defence personnel, who voted for Narendra Modi in large numbers, are unhappy about the unkept promises.

“The ESM [ex-servicemen] community is a very disillusioned lot. Reason being that you announced at the Rewari Rally in Sept 13 that you will meet the long outstanding demand for One Rank One Pension of soldiers soon after BJP comes to power. I WAS THERE when you said so.

It is going to be one year since you became the PM and we are only hearing about new dates every few weeks.

The expectations started from 1 Mar to 20 Mar, 1 Apr, 1 May, 26 May and now mid June.

Periodic assurances are being given by the RM [Raksha Mantri], COAS [Chief of the Army Staff] and of course yourself.

The soldiers have now resigned to a future which is not dissimilar from what we had come to associate with your predecessors.

A sad situation when they had such high hopes from you.

We are aware that you are dealing with an intransigent bureaucracy, but with your and the RM’s experience of dealing with it in your earlier avatars, we expected a much better handling of this animal from you both....

May I remind you Sir, that you have made a promise to a soldier and so you are duty bound to keep it, i.e.., if you expect him to keep his promise to the nation when he takes his oath on joining service. I hope we do not have to remind you again.

A PROMISE IS A PROMISE.”

This acerbic letter written by Lt Gen. (Retd) S.K. Bahri PVSM to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on May 3 sums up the mood of India’s defence personnel with regard to their pension, anomalies in pay, entitlements, state of combat preparedness, and so on. Bahri is a much-decorated officer and has been at the forefront of negotiations with the government on various issues concerning defence personnel. “We supported Modi, in fact voted for him, because we thought he would solve our problems. But we feel as if we have been taken for a ride,” he told Frontline. He says it hurts to realise that soldiers, serving and retired, were duped into voting for Modi because they thought he was truthful about his promises. It goes without saying that the Prime Minister’s Office did not acknowledge the receipt of this letter though all other letters of his to the Prime Minister have been promptly acknowledged.

Defence personnel, who were frustrated by the apathy of previous governments, believed that their problems regarding pay and pension and other grievances would be solved as soon as the Modi government came to power. “We believed that Modi was a true leader and would honour his promises,” said Bahri.

But a year later, they are “disheartened”. “It is disappointing. The gullible soldiers supported Modi so wholeheartedly and now he has forgotten his promise. It’s a pity that even this government is as apathetic to the problems of soldiers as the previous governments. Why should a soldier be reduced to begging for his just dues? Isn’t it the duty of any government to ensure that soldiers get the highest pay and pension, and the best care after retirement? Isn’t it the duty of any government to ensure that when the soldier is standing guard at the border, he should be equipped with the best possible gear, arms and ammunition?” asked Maj. Gen. (retd) Satbir Singh, chairman of the Indian Ex Servicemen Movement (IESM).

Despite there being a clear commitment from Modi himself, the issue of One Rank One Pension (OROP), which means that personnel retiring with the same rank and same length of service would get similar pension irrespective of their date of retirement, is hanging fire. The government keeps saying that it will be done soon, but to date nothing has happened. In fact, rumours are rife that the matter has been postponed to be addressed by the Seventh Pay Commission. This has angered defence personnel further.

On February 1, the IESM organised a rally at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi to press for the implementation of OROP. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar invited a delegation of ex-servicemen for talks, and after hours of discussion, which took place in the presence of the Chief of the Army Staff, it was announced that OROP would be implemented by March 1. The Defence Minister also requested the ex-servicemen not to launch the agitation they had threatened. An announcement to withdraw all further agitation was made at the rally and the ex-servicemen returned to their respective cities, hoping for an early implementation of OROP. They are still waiting.

No salaries

It is not just with regard to pension that the soldiers are unhappy, but apparently even salaries are not coming on time these days. Young officers commissioned as lieutenants in the Army in December 2014 have not got a single paisa by way of salary to date. They are forced to borrow from their seniors or family members to meet their needs. Even senior officers are faced with a similar problem.

An officer of the rank of lieutenant general, who has an acute medical emergency in his family, has not got his salary for the past four months. According to highly placed sources in the Army, this has happened because the website of the Directorate General of Civil Defence Accounts, the department which handles the salaries of Army personnel, was hacked a few months ago, throwing the entire accounts department out of gear. But the most worrying aspect is that nobody has been held accountable or punished for this major lapse, which can result in a serious security threat. A senior Army officer told Frontline that it was unthinkable that such a thing could happen in any government, least of all this government which swears by rules and procedures.

No arms, no ammunition

On the issue of defence preparedness too, the less said the better. None of the big-ticket reforms have happened, with the result that no major defence procurement has taken place. According to a parliamentary Standing Committee report, which was tabled in the recently concluded Parliament session, India does not have the ammunition to last beyond 20 days in case a war breaks out today.

“It is sad that our procurement policy is so time-consuming that not a single defence purchase has been made in recent years. This is unfair because it is the duty of the government to ensure that when the soldier is putting his life at stake for the nation, then he should have the best of arms and equipment,” said Maj. Gen. (Retd) Satbir Singh.

Of course, there has been some action lately as far as defence purchases are concerned. The Defence Acquisition Council, which is headed by the Defence Minister, cleared a number of proposals on May 13, including a Tata-Airbus proposal worth Rs.11,930 crore to replace the Indian Air Force’s ageing fleet of Avro transport aircraft. Other proposals that were approved included an offer from Russia to build 200 light utility helicopters under the “Make in India” initiative, the purchase of 145 ultra light M777 howitzer guns from the United States, and six new Brahmos supersonic cruise missile systems worth Rs.2,700 crore for the Navy. The howitzer purchase, at Rs.2,900 crore, was initiated in 2008 but stalled in 2013 because of differences.

“It is good that some movement is seen in this regard. But defence purchases should be planned 20 years in advance, only then can the forces have the best and latest equipment available on time. The government should also revamp the DRDO [Defence Research and Development Organisation] to expedite internal development of weapons and ammunition,” said Satbir Singh. Unfortunately, the sense of urgency everyone expected from this government was missing, he said.

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