Trust deficit

Print edition : October 02, 2015

Ex-servicemen greet Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the government's announcement on OROP at Faridabad on September 6. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

The NDA government rolls out One Rank One Pension, but the use of the term “voluntary retirement” raises the hackles of the agitating veterans and makes them suspect the government’s motive.

THE National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was clearly embarrassed when retired defence personnel angrily rejected its September 5 announcement on the implementation of One Rank One Pension (OROP) and decided to continue their agitation until there was clarity on entitlements. The veterans, who have been agitating since June 14, were taken by surprise when Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, while announcing that OROP would be implemented with effect from July 1, 2014, created a confusion by saying that military personnel who took “voluntary retirement” would not be entitled to OROP.

The veterans’ angry outburst against the introduction of the “voluntary retirement” clause forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene personally on September 6 to clarify that defence personnel who retired “prematurely” would be entitled to OROP benefits. But the seeds of doubt about Modi’s sincerity in fulfilling the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) pre-election promise had already been sown. In a major display of lack of confidence in the NDA government’s promises, the ex-servicemen decided to continue the dharna and relay hunger strike until written orders of the announcement were issued. Major General (retd) Satbir Singh, chairman of the Indian Ex Servicemen’s Movement, said: “We don’t trust the babus [bureaucrats]. They have been playing tricks with us for many years. Even this time, while the government announced the implementation of OROP, the babus inserted the VRS [voluntary retirement scheme] clause deliberately at the last moment to deprive a major chunk of ex-servicemen from the benefits of OROP. This is despite the fact that there is nothing like VRS in the services. We welcome the announcement on OROP but our protest will continue until we have seen the written order and are satisfied.” The veterans have, however, called off the fast unto death.

OROP has been a major demand of the defence personnel for the past 42 years. The sticking points in the road map for its implementation are so many that they take the sheen out of the announcement. Initially, the veterans, who are on an agitation at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, greeted Parrikar’s announcement that OROP would be implemented with effect from July 1, 2014, with cheers but became restive when he said that the benefit would not be available to those who took VRS and that pensions would be recalculated every five years and not every year as demanded. The other points of the announcement they have rejected include the constitution of a one-member judicial committee to look into any complexities, taking the calendar year 2013 as the base year for fixing OROP, and taking the average of the minimum and maximum pension drawn to fix the pension. The veterans demanded that the judicial panel should consist of five members, including one ex-serviceman and one serving officer; that the panel should submit its report within a month and not six months as announced; and that pension should be fixed not by averaging the minimum and maximum drawn but by averaging the maximum drawn. They also demand that the base year should not be the calendar year of 2013 but the financial year of 2013-14. They have, however, accepted the roll-out date for OROP as July 1, 2014, and the payment of arrears in four half-yearly instalments for ex-servicemen and at one go for defence widows.

The use of the term VRS is what raised the hackles of the veterans. They pointed out that there was no VRS in the services, only the option of premature retirement, which is a necessity to keep the forces young. A serviceman who is superseded by a junior can leave the forces by opting for premature retirement. Similarly, medical emergencies can also be the ground for premature retirement. “Premature retirement is different from VRS in that there is no golden handshake here as in a VRS. The retiring person does not get a lucrative compensation as is given to VRS optees in public sector undertakings, banks or corporate offices. We are flabbergasted by the inclusion of this term because this is patently unfair. If the term VRS is applied, more than 45 per cent of the ex-servicemen would be excluded from OROP. The forces actually encourage premature retirement because it is better for the morale of the serving personnel. A demotivated and disgruntled manpower is good for nobody,” says Lieutenant General (retd) S.K. Bahri, who has also been at the forefront of the agitation.

Although the Defence Minister later assured the veterans that premature retirees would not be denied the benefit of OROP and the Prime Minister made a statement to this effect on September 6, the veterans refused to believe the government until a written order was issued. “There is no question of believing their words. We have been a victim of babudom in the past when despite raps from the Supreme Court on rank pay, the babus ensured that we were denied the benefit for years and we only got it after fighting for it in the Supreme Court. Until we see the exact order, the agitation will continue,” Col (retd) D. Dhasmana said. So, the agitation is likely to continue for another month or so.

It, however, is disconcerting that if the agitation prolongs, serving personnel, too, will be affected. Although ex-servicemen are at the forefront of the agitation, it is a fact that 90 per cent of them have at least one family member serving in the defence. A point is that serving personnel are contributing funds to keep the agitation going, although no one would admit it on record. “Is the government not aware of the dynamics of the forces? The longer they drag the issue, the more demotivated our boys will become. They are playing with fire,” said a veteran, whose son is a serving Army officer.

Another disturbing aspect that has emerged out of the whole issue is the trust deficit between the service personnel and the civilian administration. The decision to continue the agitation even after the Prime Minister’s clarification speaks volumes about the credibility crisis the NDA government is facing. Many veterans told Frontline that the September 5 announcement and the Prime Minister’s subsequent intervention were probably meant to prevent the veterans from taking their agitation to election-bound States such as Bihar. “The announcement may have been made to make us call off the agitation because a prolonged agitation would reflect badly on the government, especially during an election. Otherwise, the government would have come out with the exact figures about the cost to the exchequer and a written order should have been ready. The Defence Minister only cited a tentative annual cost of Rs.10,000-12,000 crore. The three service chiefs, on the other hand, have worked out a figure of Rs.8,300 crore as the annual burden on the pension bill. Why is the government not spelling out the exact cost? Obviously, it has not done its homework,” Lt Gen. Bahri said.

Cynicism and scepticism aside, if the government manages to implement OROP as announced, it will result in substantial benefits for the 24 lakh ex-servicemen and six lakh defence widows. Jawans and junior commissioned officers (JCOs) stand to gain anywhere between Rs.2,500 and Rs.9,000 a month. Retired officers are likely to get anywhere between Rs.8,000 and Rs.22,000 a month.

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