‘Discretion’ and lack of it: Deceased army officer’s parents drive 2000 Kms to Bengaluru

Virtually every rule is bent or broken at the discretion of the competent authority. But in this case, the competent authority decided that a dead body can be flown but not people who are still alive

Colonel Navjot Singh Bal (Photo Courtesy: social media)
Colonel Navjot Singh Bal (Photo Courtesy: social media)
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Uttam Sengupta

The Government on Friday turned down a request to fly the parents of Colonel Navjot Singh Bal (39) from Amritsar (some reports claimed Guru Gram) to Bengaluru to attend the funeral of their son.

The Special Forces officer was battling a rare form of cancer and had passed away in the Army Hospital in Bengaluru on Thursday. A Shaurya Chakra awardee, the third highest gallantry award in the Army, Colonel Bal was battling with the disease for the past two years and his right arm was amputed in a bid to stop the cancer from spreading to his heart.

With all flights suspended and the country in a lockdown following the outbreak of coronavirus, a request was made to the Ministry of Defence to allow an armed forces plane to fly the parents to Bengaluru for the funeral.

But after a day long exchange between the Defence Ministry, the MHA and the Army Headquarters, reported Vishnu Som on NDTV on Saturday, the request was turned down. Some explained that while rules allowed the body to be flown to the native places of the deceased, they did not allow relatives to be flown for the funeral. The Government, he reported, did not want to set a precedent.

The father of the officer, Lt Colonel (Rtd) K.S. Bal and other family members, were, therefore, left with no option but to drive down to Bengaluru, 2000 Kms away from Amritsar.

The NDTV report added that ruing the indifferent approach, another senior officer called it red-tapism and said, this was a special need and ‘we all in the Army were sure that it will happen. But people who are expected to give a solution in such conditions did not bother’.

While the Army would have undoubtedly provided support on the way, with its excellent network of cantonments, officers’ Mess and hospitals along the route, the episode makes one wonder at the rationale behind the rule that allows a dead body to be flown but not people.

While it is not yet known why the family didn’t want the funeral to take place in Amritsar, in which case the Army would presumably have been happy to fly the dead body from Bengaluru to Amritsar, would it have mattered if a plane took off from Amritsar and flown to Bengaluru instead ?

There is a wonderful and over-used word in Indian bureaucracy and that is ‘discretion’. Virtually every rule can and are bent or broken some time or the other at the discretion of the ‘competent authority’. Why couldn’t the competent authority have used their discretion in this case?

Colonel Navjot Singh Bal posted this selfie a day before his death (Photo Courtesy: social media)
Colonel Navjot Singh Bal posted this selfie a day before his death (Photo Courtesy: social media)

Surely it cannot be the case of the Government and the Army that rules are never bent or broken? Or exceptions made?

This writer has personal knowledge of at least one occasion when a BSF plane was placed at the disposal of the then Director, Intelligence Bureau, following a bereavement in the family.

In any case, had the competent authority wanted, they could surely have arranged for a private jet to fly the family? Perhaps the Government could have persuaded an industrialist to pay for it and claim exemption under Corporate Social Responsibility?

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