Unhappy soldiers

Print edition : March 07, 2014

Defence personnel paying homage at Amar Jawan Jyoti to mark Vijay Diwas at India Gate in New Delhi. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Ex-servicemen signing in blood a memorandum demanding ''one rank one pension'' after returning their gallantry medals, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on March 14, 2010. Photo: S. Subramanium

Ex-servicemen undertaking a fast to draw the government's attention to their complaints relating to pension and resettlement, in Bangalore on May 27, 2008. Photo: K. Gopinathan

Indian Army in action during the Kargil War, 1999. Photo: sd gdfhgh gh

India’s armed forces personnel, who put their lives on the line for the country, are denied what is their due in terms of pay, perks and pension in spite of several Supreme Court directives.

KAUTILYA, the ancient master political strategist, once told Chandragupta Maurya that the day the soldier would have to demand his dues would be the saddest day for his empire because on that day, he would lose the moral sanction to be the king. This holds true today too. Unfortunately, in independent India, not only have soldiers been reduced to demanding their dues continuously, but the government has become so indifferent that it has ignored their demands for years now. Despite the soldiers, including personnel of the armed forces as well as the paramilitary forces, going to court to secure their just dues, such as rank pay, perks and pension, the government has refused to act.

Issues relating to the salary and pension of armed forces personnel have been pending for years now. Despite clear Supreme Court orders, the matter continues to remain unresolved. Serious anomalies in the pay structure of defence personnel and petty mischief in the implementation of Central Pay Commission recommendations have been a point of concern for armed forces personnel since the time the Fourth Pay Commission was announced. Incidentally, until 1973, the armed forces had a separate pay commission and the salaries of soldiers were higher than that of their civilian counterparts. But with the setting up of the Fourth Pay Commission, the armed forces pay commission was done away with and the attempt was to bring parity in wages with civilians.

It was then that the long story of neglect, apathy, mischief and resentment began. When the Fourth Pay Commission recommendations were announced, the bureaucracy manipulated the implementation of the recommendations in such a way that armed forces personnel did not benefit from the recommendations. In order to keep the armed forces’ edge in salary, the Fourth Pay Commission had recommended rank pay, which varied between Rs.200 and Rs.1,200 depending on the rank, in addition to the basic pay and perks. But during the implementation of the report, the basic salary of armed forces personnel was reduced by an amount equivalent to the rank pay and the net result was that they did not get any increase in their salaries.

Nobody noticed this anomaly until one retired major, A.K. Dhanapalan, filed a case in the Kerala High Court in 1996-97 and won it. As the news spread, many officers filed similar petitions across the country. On the government’s request, all these cases were shifted to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of the defence personnel on March 8, 2010, and ordered the government to pay arrears with 6 per cent interest to over 20,000 retired and serving defence personnel. The government, however, sought a modification/recall of the order.

Between 2010 and 2011, a huge number of similar cases came up for hearing in the Supreme Court and each time the Solicitor General failed to appear in the court. On June 7, 2012, Lt Gen. (retd) Raj Kadyan, former Deputy Chief of the Army Staff and later chairman of the Indian Ex Servicemen Movement (IESM), met Law Minister Salman Khurshid and requested his intervention. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the armed forces personnel on September 4, 2012. The government pleaded inability to bear the “extra expenditure”, but was reminded by the court that it was not extra expenditure but the just dues of the defence personnel which was fraudulently denied to them. The government then requested that only litigant officers be given the arrears, which the Supreme Court rejected saying that all affected officers be paid the arrears. The court, however, giving a small concession to the government, waived the interest up to 2006. Over 20,000 officers, who had been deprived of their due, were to benefit. But their dues are yet to be paid because, while implementing the order, the government’s notification said only those in service “as on 1.1.1986” would be covered while the Supreme Court had said that the order was to be applied “with effect from 1.1.1986”. The matter is again in the Supreme Court.

The Services have been demanding representation in the pay commission so that anomalies do not crop up in the pay structure, but the government has not accepted this demand. Now, the Seventh Pay Commission has been announced and, once again, the Services have not been given any representation, which will again lead to anomalies creeping in and then again years of litigation by soldiers to get their just dues.

Pension blues

In the matter of pension too, the government shows discrimination towards ex-servicemen, especially when they are re-employed. When an ex-serviceman retires before the superannuation age of 60, he can get re-employed in other civilian government jobs, but his salary after re-employment is calculated after deducting his pension. If his pension increases subsequently after a revision as a result of pay commission recommendations, the government starts deducting the enhanced pension from his salary. This aspect got especially highlighted after the Fourth Pay Commission in 1986 which increased the pension of ex-servicemen substantially. When the increased pension started being deducted from the salary of re-employed ex-servicemen, many of them approached the Supreme Court (Vasudevan Pillay & others) and on December 8, 1994, the apex court (Justice Kuldip Singh and Justice B.L. Hansaria) held that the “decision to reduce enhanced pension from the pay of those ex-servicemen who were holding civil post on 1.1.1986, following their re-employment, is unconstitutional”.

The Government of India filed a special leave petition (SLP) against it. This was also rejected by the apex court, which ordered the government to pay the dues it owed ex-servicemen. Following this order, the government stopped deducting the enhanced pension from the salary of re-employed ex-servicemen, only to start deducting it again from December 1997 after the Fifth Pay Commission in 1996. The matter was again taken to the Delhi High Court by ex-servicemen Jai Singh and Lekh Ram. The High Court, in its order dated August 9, 2004 (Justice Mukundakam Sharma and Justice Gita Mittal), ruled that the deduction of enhanced pension from the pay of re-employed ex-servicemen was illegal and without jurisdiction of law and quashed the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) order to this effect. The court also stated that this order was to be complied with in all future cases as well, as this was a settled position of law.

Despite there being no ambiguity in the judgment, this order was not implemented by the government, which kept deducting the enhanced pension of ex-servicemen from their re-employment salaries. The matter again reached the Delhi High Court ( Kanwal Singh vs Union of India). On May 23, 2008, the High Court (Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Mool Chand Garg) ruled in favour of the ex-serviceman and ordered the government to refund the amount thus illegally deducted, with 9 per cent interest. It also criticised the Government of India, saying its conduct reflected “high-handedness and need to be deprecated and that such action besides being illegal and unwarranted was also contemptuous”.

The Government of India filed an SLP against this too, which was dismissed by the Supreme Court on November 7, 2009. However, the government continued to deduct the enhanced pension from the salary of re-employed ex-servicemen. In between, other ex-servicemen took the case to the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and the Madras High Court, which again ruled in favour of the ex-servicemen. In these cases, however, the departments concerned (the Central Board of Direct Taxes, or CBDT, and Income Tax) complied with the court order, refunding the deducted amount to those specific individuals. Other departments of the Government of India, however, continued deducting the enhanced pension from ex-servicemen’s pay. The deduction continued for everyone again after the Sixth Pay Commission report was implemented. Now, another group of ex-servicemen, Major (retd) U.C. Naik & others, has approached the Delhi High Court, invoking contempt proceedings as the court’s order dated August 9, 2004, had not been implemented by the Government of India. The petition was admitted recently and the hearing is due in April.

What, however, is most shocking in this entire saga is the wilful refusal of the DoPT to heed the unambiguous advice of the Ministry of Law and Justice that the court orders in these cases must be adhered to. A Right to Information (RTI) reply has revealed that the Ministry of Law and Justice, in its recommendation on July 21, 2011, had advised the DoPT to obey the Supreme Court’s order in this case.

Double standards

What appears inexplicable in this matter is the double standards of the Government of India in dealing with ex-servicemen vis-a-vis civilian bureaucrats. A plethora of RTI queries, compiled by Gen. (retd) V.K. Singh, have revealed that the government not only has flouted its own service and employment rules, which state that no re-employment is allowed after 60 years of age, to favour civilian bureaucrats, but has been overly generous to them in matters of salary. While re-employment is only up to the age of 60 in the case of ex-servicemen, and their pay is fixed after deducting their pension, civilian bureaucrats suffer no such handicap. They continue in their jobs after being re-employed well after 60 and their pay is fixed at the maximum of the scale while the pension is paid too. Ex-servicemen get their salaries fixed at the minimum of the scale minus their pension. The alacrity with which the government goes for litigation against ex-servicemen, even in cases where the latter’s demands are justified, is disturbing. Even more disturbing is the hostility, which is inexplicable. What else but hostility can be the cause for the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare, which is under the Ministry of Defence, issuing a memo on January 2, 2014, saying that in matters of litigation in cases of disability and certain other categories of pension, the department would appeal, right up to the Supreme Court, if cases go against it. This in effect means that if any ex-serviceman took the Ministry of Defence to court, he will have to fight the case right up to the apex court as the case will automatically go in appeal. “Just to get a paltry

sum of a few thousand rupees, the poor soldier will have to spend from his meagre savings, right up to the Supreme Court, while the government does not have to pay from its own pocket. This is unacceptable, so I protested about it to the Defence Minister,” says Rajeev Chandrashekhar, Member of Parliament. The Defence Minister immediately withdrew that order, telling him that the intention was to “save on time in paper work”.

Stress taking its toll

If the figures are to be believed, stress leading to deaths is a chilling reality in the armed forces. According to Ministry of Defence officials, the Army is losing more soldiers to suicide and fratricide than to militancy-related incidents. Every third day a soldier is killing himself. The suicide rate in the Army is shocking, averaging over 100 every year since 2003, according to the Defence Minister’s statement in Parliament. He said fratricide had also become a regular phenomenon in the Army. He informed the House that according to a study done by the Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR), perceived humiliation and harassment at the hands of superiors, over and above occupational and family causes, was making soldiers so stressed out that they were either killing themselves or taking the lives of fellow soldiers or officers.

According to the 31st Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, from 2007 to 2010, as many as 208 soldiers lost their lives in action against militants, while 368 killed themselves. Another 15 to 30 soldiers tried to kill themselves but failed. The committee expressed serious concern at the fact that enhanced stress, leading to psychological imbalance, had emerged as a major killer in the Indian Army, much more dangerous than any militant threat. But it also expressed concern that the Army was still loath to talk about it. The studies done by the DIPR and other institutions are kept “secret” and the recommendations made to the government are ignored most of the time. “What is the harm if such reports are made public and debated openly? This will give the soldiers at least some solace that the people are concerned about their problems and care enough to discuss solutions,” said Satpal Maharaj, chairman of the committee. Efforts by Frontline to get the DIPR to speak on this issue remained futile.Given these long-pending issues and many more like the demand for better medical facilities and one rank one pension, and the government’s non-responsive attitude, the veterans have now decided to join hands and make themselves heard. “Since serving soldiers cannot speak out for themselves, we, the veterans, have decided to do something about it,” says Gen. (retd) V.K. Singh, former Chief of the Army Staff. Rajeev Chandrashekhar agrees: “It is high time the personnel from the forces are treated with the honour and dignity that are due to them.”

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