The Union Cabinet approved the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme on December 23, 2022, fulfilling one of the promises that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made in the run-up to the general election of 2014. The scheme was expected to close the gap between pensions drawn by servicemen and women of the same rank but retiring at different points of time.
The agitation for OROP was a long-drawn one, with the pandemic forcing a halt to the protests in 2020. The hope of a universally acceptable resolution was, however, squashed when on February 20 this year 24 unions of retired jawans, including junior commissioned officers (JCOs) and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), from all over the country resumed their protest in New Delhi. The protesting former jawans say that they have got a bad deal and that many of the recommendations of the Bhagat Singh Koshyari Committee report have been ignored.
The earlier agitation for OROP was conducted by jawans and officers together, but the present one is by jawans alone who feel they have not got justice. That it was only the officers who got to talk to the government in negotiations on OROP has generated among jawans a sense of betrayal by their own seniors. Gopal Krishan, a retired soldier who came from Kerala to join the protest at Jantar Mantar, put it bluntly: “Our officers betrayed us.” Many issues raised by the protesting jawans, however, go beyond the scope of OROP.
To begin with, the jawans point out that the scheme is not very inclusive. Jawans between the ranks of sepoy and havildar have benefited under the scheme but not JCOs or those who held honorary ranks, said S.P.S. Gosal, national adviser to the Saabka Sainik Sangarsh Committee (SSSC) and a retired Subedar Major. “The pension of war widows of personnel below officer rank [PBOR] hasn’t increased either,” he said. Time-bound promotions for PBORs in service is another demand being raised.
The jawans also find the method used to revise the Service Basic Pension discriminatory. Nalin Talwar, who retired as Junior Warrant Officer (JWO) from the Air Force and is national spokesperson of the SSSC, explained why: “While implementing the Seventh Pay Commission, the Central government adopted the formula of multiplying the amount of Service Basic Pension received in December 2015 with 2.81 for officers. For jawans, it was multiplied by 2.57.” The jawans demand their pensions be increased and brought on a par with those of officers.
Talwar explained with an example why disparities in pensions are compounded by the issue of length of service. With the implementation of the Ajai Vikram Singh Committee’s recommendations, officers retire after maximum service at 58, whereas jawans retire at a far younger age. That automatically puts a limit on the pension they draw. “In 2006, the monthly basic pension of an officer of the rank of a Lt. Colonel was Rs.14,600, whereas that of a sepoy was Rs.4,046. After OROP was implemented with benefits effective from July 1, 2014, the Colonel [upgraded from Lt. Colonel in accordance with the Ajai Vikram Singh Committee’s recommendations] gets a monthly pension of Rs.95,400 whereas the sepoy gets only Rs.20,107.”
Woes of early retirement
Talwar also pointed out that the introduction of the concept of “premature retirement” was now being used to deny benefits to jawans who retire young. “OROP was supposed to benefit jawans who retired at a young age,” he said.
Retiring early causes hardships for former jawans in multiple ways. “Unlike officers who usually retire at 58, a jawan, after retiring at the age of 37, finds it difficult to ensure a bright future for his children due to inadequate pension,” Gopal Krishnan said. The government is aware of the problem. The Ministry of Defence has signed an MoU with the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship to enable skilling and certification of retired soldiers. The Army website notes: “Approximately 60,000 personnel retire each year; however, only a small percentage transit to a viable second career befitting their several years of service and experience.”
Prime Minister Modi had told a rally in Faridabad in 2015 that Armed Forces personnel who took voluntary retirement would also be entitled to OROP benefits. Nothing mattered to his government more than the esteem of the soldiers, he said.
Modi was seen to be sympathetic to the demands of ex-servicemen even before he became Prime Minister. “Who stops our former soldiers to live with honour and self-respect, and their genuine demands getting fulfilled? We have been hearing about one rank, one pension since many years, what is the problem?” he said at a rally at Revari in Haryana in 2013. “Today, I publicly ask the Government of India on behalf of the Army men and ex-servicemen of this country to publish a White Paper on the status of one rank, one pension scheme.”
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Now that OROP is finally implemented, jawans feel they have been short-changed. Nalin Talwar said that the “biggest source of resentment“ was the introduction of policies such as the one pertaining to PBORs retiring after 2014 getting a smaller pension than those who retired before.
Referring to Modi’s Revari speech in 2013, Kapil Dev Silani, 39, a resident of Haryana who retired from Rajputana Rifles on medical grounds in 2014, said, “We request Modi ji to bring out a White Paper and tell us where the OROP money is going. The OROP scheme has turned out to be an Officers’ Rank, Officers Pension scheme. Our long-standing issues remain unaddressed.”
Harbhal Singh from Haryana, a Naik with Rashtriya Rifles, was 35 when he accidentally stepped on an anti-personnel mine in Kashmir’s Kupwara district while on regular patrol duty in 2009. He underwent a partial foot amputation and had to retire after 15 years of service.
Harbhal Singh, who is general secretary of SSSC, supports his father, wife and two school-going children. “I get Rs.20,000 as monthly basic pension and Rs.7,500 as disability pension. The war injury has left me invalid for any physical work,” he said,
The last drawn monthly salary becomes disability pension when a soldier is required to retire because of injuries suffered in the line of duty. The disparity between the pay of officers and jawans therefore gets reflected in their disability pensions even when the injury is equally serious. Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat reportedly mentioned this disparity in his deposition to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence as part of discussions on a proposal to tax disability pensions. General Rawat said the disparity was creating “heartburn” among jawans which was not understood by officers. He explained that in the case of a jawan and an officer who had both lost a leg, the officer’s disability pension could be as much as four times that of the jawan’s.
According to a newspaper report, 11.2 per cent of Army officers, including generals, and 0.8 per cent of troopers draw disability benefits. Harbhal Singh’s case is a glaring example of how jawans on disability pension struggle to pick up the pieces. “As per the Seventh Pay Commission, in case of normal disability [suffered in a peace zone in the line of duty], the monthly pension of the Chief of Army Staff is Rs.75,000 whereas a sepoy gets only Rs.9,083,” said Singh. He said that this disparity flew in the face of India’s status as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disability and violated The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, and Article 14 of the Constitution. “The disability pension should be decided on the basis of the nature of disability or injury attributable to military service and not rank and length of the service,” he said.
Many disgruntled jawans continue to fight court cases even after the implementation of OROP. The three Services had to spend a total of Rs.26,12,30,810 as legal expenses for the year 2019-20 (up to February, 2020), the MoD had told the Rajya Sabha. That figure gives an idea of the volume of such cases.
Advocate Ashok Yadav, who is representing disgruntled soldiers in the Delhi High Court, retired as sergeant from the IAF in 2010 and is national president of the All India Ex-servicemen Development Council. “It is painful to see how the government is fighting against its own soldiers who have genuine grievances,” he told Frontline. He said he filed his writ petition in 2018 against disparities in the Military Service Pay, an addendum paid to military personnel for the intangible constrains and disadvantages that affect them for most part of their service career and retired lives.
Arguing that PBORs were always at a heightened risk in conflict zones because of the nature of their job, Yadav added that they faced a greater threat even from climatic hazards. RTI replies corroborate his assertions. According to a reply by the Integrated Headquarter of MoD (Army), 265 officers, 820 JCOs and 7,433 soldiers of other ranks (PBORs) died between 2011 and 2016. For the same period, 55 officers, 37 JCOs and 554 “other rank” soldiers got injured.
Talwar alleged that there was discrimination even in military awards and appreciation. “The officer-jawan ratio in the armed forces is 3:97. But officers get most of the gallantry awards and medals. The jawans and JCOs hardly get even one per cent of the awards distributed every year,” he said, sharing RTI replies from IAF and Navy that show glaring disparity. He claimed the Army did not disclose information on this in response to RTI applications.
Deadline for arrears
Meanwhile, on February 27, the Supreme Court pulled up the MoD for extending the deadline for payment of arrears under OROP. A bench headed by Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud asked the Secretary of the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare, which comes under the MoD, to file an affidavit explaining why a unilateral direction was passed by the MoD against the court’s direction that the payment be made by March 15.
An MoD press statement said last year: “Arrears w.e.f. July 01, 2019 to June 30, 2022 have been calculated as approx. Rs 23,638 crore as per the applicable dearness relief. This expenditure is over and above the ongoing expenditure on account of OROP.” It added that the pension would be re-fixed on the basis of average of minimum and maximum pension of Defence Forces retirees of 2018 in the same rank with the same length of service. “The Armed Forces Personnel retired up to June 30, 2019 [excluding pre-mature (PMR) retired w.e.f. July 01, 2014] will be covered under this revision,” said the Ministry. It said over 25.13 lakh (including over 4.52 lakh new beneficiaries) armed forces pensioners and family pensioners, including war widows and disabled pensioners, would benefit.
Recent years have also seen a growing clamour against the system of officers using Sahayaks for domestic work. The practice is a colonial hangover: officers in the British Army had batmen to help them in their daily lives. The Navy and the Air Force have done away with the custom, but the Army persists with it.
- Retired jawans unhappy with the deal they have got under OROP are protesting at New De;hi’s Jantar Mantar.
- They find the OROP discriminatory, exclusionary and unfair.
- The scope of their demands goes beyond OROP.