On March 12, the final hearing for the case for NFU for the defense services was heard. We are still awaiting the final verdict and as part of the uniformed fraternity I really do hope the judgment is favorable.
However, while the Supreme Court may ultimately do right by us, what is most egregious is how our own government has vehemently opposed the grant of this benefit to the Defence Services and used every trick in the book to deny the benefit to us. The case was heard on March 12 after being listed 9 times earlier and on each occasion the government counsel just kept asking for more time. The intent was quite clear – delay, delay, delay. This Kafkaesque episode quite accurately reflects the attitude of the present government towards the Defence Services.
Hark back to September 15, 2013 when Modi in a bombastic election speech in Rewari in Haryana promised the moon to the Defence Services and Ex-Servicemen including the long-awaited OROP. However, the six years since that bombastic speech has been one long series of disappointment for the Defence Services. For a government which promised to be friendly to the military, the service persons and the veterans this government has flopped miserably.
The first major disappointment was of course the OROP. It was announced in September 2015 in a diluted form with the pension being equalised very 5 years rather than every year. The Ex-Servicemen community was sorely disappointed and began peacefully protesting. The government, as is its nature, began to claim that what it gave was the true OROP and unleashed the local police on the protesting veterans and widows. Tear gas and lathis were used against aged war wounded soldiers and war widows and they were demonised on social media as agents of the opposition party by the BJP IT Cell.
Never have the veteran and the military community been humiliated in such fashion. While the Ex-Servicemen community and the widows were protesting against a wanton breach of promise, the government doubled down on its position. It used every trick in the book to discredit the OROP movement. It called them greedy and selfish. It tried to portray them as composed of senior Army officers who were interested in seeking political offices for themselves. There were even attempts to divide the movement by creating rift between the Officers and Other Ranks and portraying the officers as self-seeking and accusing them of neglecting the Other Ranks.
What is most unbelievable in this attempt was that the OROP as proposed would have been most beneficial to the Other Ranks who retire the earliest, earn much less as pension and have very large liabilities. They have been the most neglected by the present government.
This government has two Ex-servicemen as members of the Union Cabinet. However, they have been totally silent on the issue. What is most shocking is that Modi even accused the Ex-servicemen movement as being greedy and said the money for OROP was being provided after diverting funds from the nation’s poorest. Such disingenuous remarks were as absurd as they were hurtful and divisive.
In a totally unnecessary and arbitrary move, and motivated by pure spite, the government decided to deny OROP to Premature Retirees. Of course, in true “bungling babu” fashion the MoD referred to them as “Voluntary Retirees” when no such term ever existed in the Defence Services.
The Defence Services has one of the most pyramidical career structure within any government service in India. More than 50% retire without getting a single promotion (other than the mandatory time scale promotions). Thus, many of these officers who are “superceded” take premature retirement and try for some employment in the civvy streets as a part of their second innings. Given the job market in India, most of these officers get very mediocre and modest paying jobs. Yet they do opt to leave as they have been written off by their organisation and they reckon that while in the civvy streets they would at least be living in one place, their children would be able to continue in the same school and perhaps their wives would be able to continue or gain some employment.
These officers have now been given another blow by the organisation – while being considered not worthy of promotion they are also now being told they are not eligible for OROP also. Such is the concern of the government for the armed forces.
The next blow to the prestige and pride of the Armed Forces was delivered through the 7th Pay Commission. This Commission gave the worst deal to the Armed Forces for a long time. The situation was so bad that the three Service Chiefs refused to implement it until they were browbeaten into accepting it with the promise that the government would take care of anomalies in due course of time.
The biggest blow was the non-implementation of NFU for the Defence Services, but other major lacunas also remained. The government in a low blow rejected the demand for higher Military Service Pay for JCOs and equivalent in the Services, leaving these Group – B Government Officers seething. These officers reach their rank after long and distinguished service and yet were equated with sepoys in terms of Military Service Pay.
The denial of NFU was of course the biggest disappointment for the Military. With no real justification for its denial the government resorted to lame excuses like - it is likely to create problems of command and control, it will reduce the “charm” of promotions and other such nonsense. Most unfortunately, they were supported in this by most of the serving generals who parroted these same lines, probably with a misplaced sense of achievement in their own promotions. The matter was litigated in the Armed Forces Tribunal by one brave serving officer - Col Mukul Dev and he won the case. Naturally the government appealed to the Supreme Court and managed to delay it from December 2016 till now.
What is most shocking is that on March 12, during arguments in the Supreme Court, the Government of India shamelessly maligned its own armed forces and portrayed it as a group of rich, spoilt, greedy and useless freeloaders.
From falsely saying that Army officers lived in “palatial” houses to vilely impugning every benefit granted by the government to the Armed Forces the Government lawyers made every effort to paint the Armed Forces officers as super villains. They accused the Armed Forces of getting hugely subsidised goods through the CSD canteen even though this has been existing since Independence and this facility is available to and widely used by civilian employees paid out of the MoD budget. They accused the Army of having elite schools only for themselves when the fact is that these schools are run by a registered society and has nothing to do with the government. It is something the Army has done for its own children. It even accused the army of hogging “free rations” when such rations have been taken away by the MoD.
While these are the major substantive issues, minor irritants continue to plague the Defence Services and irritate the young officers in the frontline every day. Take for instance the sudden order by the budget conscious bean counters of CDA to Army Officers who proceed on temporary duty to obtain a Non-Availability Certificate of guest room before availing authorised hotel accommodations. There was just no need for this Certificate, and stay in the hotels has been authorised by the government regulations. It makes life easier for the Officers and saves the Army from expending resources to maintain guest rooms and service them. Yet the bureaucrats of the MoD could not be less bothered.
Consider this along with the recent notice, which may or may not have been cancelled, that the MoD has run out of money to pay the Armed Forces personnel for TA/DA. These personnel spend money from their own pocket and when they go on outstation duties and are to be reimbursed by the Government. By this order, a large number of Armed Forces personnel would have to either forgo their reimbursement or wait an inordinately long time before being reimbursed. Given that the budget is allocated at the beginning of the financial year, it is inconceivable how such a situation could have come about. It points only to gross incompetence and mismanagement within the MoD.
Then there was the issue of free rations in peace stations. This was authorised to Defence Service Officers way back in 1986. However, recently another bureaucrat at the Defence Accounts Department cooked up an “audit objection” over the use of manpower to run the ration disbursing system. The distribution of rations is a matter of internal management of the Armed Forces. To disburse these rations some amount of manpower and vehicles will inevitably be used. But to label these as misuse of manpower is the epitome of bureaucratic myopia and the total disconnect of the bureaucrats from ground realities. While some small functionary could have raised this issue, it was up to senior bureaucrats to set him right and settle the issue, however they preferred to use this issue to slight the Armed Forces and assert their superiority. To cut a long story short, the free rations were done away with and a pittance was given as ration money – less then the money authorised as ration money to prisoners at Tihar jail.
To further humiliate the Defence Services, recently the bureaucrats introduced a rule that a bureaucrat must be a member of the selection committee for selecting officers to be posted as Defence Attaches to Indian embassies. This is purely a military personnel matter. All postings of military personnel are handled by the military itself, except the top positions which are handled by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. The Service Chiefs have protested in this matter but as of now the impasse continues while this important position remains vacant in various embassies in the world.
The final nail in the coffin is the decision to introduce a police officer as Additional Director General - Human Rights at Army Headquarters. He is to investigate all allegations of human rights violations against the Army. Till today this task was performed by the Human Rights Cell at the Army Headquarters manned by Army Officers. Boasting of one of the finest Human Rights record of any army of the world this organisation will be subject to the oversight of a police officer belonging to a police system which is widely regarded as one of the least human rights and citizen friendly in any democracy.
When the BJP took power in 2014 the then Defence Minister convened an Experts Committee to look into the problems of Ex-Servicemen, Disabled Soldiers and War Widows. It also looked into ways to make the MoD more responsive to the needs of the veterans. The committee, back in 2015, proposed several critical solutions.Among them were – withdrawing unnecessary cases against Disabled Soldiers and War Widows, extending ECHS to Short Service Commissioned Officers and releasing Disability Pension in full to disabled soldiers. To no one’s surprise, none of these recommendations have been implemented.
The extension of the ECHS scheme to Short Service Commissioned Officers was announced recently with great fanfare by the Finance Minister. While the press conference made it sound like it was a brainchild of the government, this was actually something the government had fought tooth and nail all the way up to the Supreme Court and lost. However, the ECHS scheme extended was incorrectly conceived and only created dissatisfaction among the Short Service Commissioned Officers. The scheme promised to cover only 50% of the costs to those who served less than 10 years to 75% of the costs to those who served more than 10 years. Further it made the costs reimbursable by preferring claims after expenditure. This is different from the existing system in which the ECHS pays the hospital directly.
Most of the Short Service Commissioned Officers fear that given the bureaucratic logjam in the general government functioning, their claims would be delayed for a long time leaving them exposed to great financial difficulties.
Even more egregiously, the MoD keeps litigating against war widows and disabled veterans and keeps denying them their rightful dues. As of now hundreds of such cases are being fought against them in both the Armed Forces Tribunal and Supreme Court. The amount involved is often less than Rs 1000 a month and a hundred times that amount is paid out to the lawyers defending the government.
The Armed Forces look up to their top brass to take care of their needs and resolve their grievances, in service and after retirement. This is a sacred compact between them and because of this unions and associations are deemed unnecessary in the Armed Forces. However, in the past decade this compact has frayed to alarming levels. Safe in their cocoon of staff officers and aide-de-camps, the senior officers now avoid meeting the rank and file and asking them about their welfare. They prefer to attend ceremonial visits and mouth platitudes in events literally called “durbars” where they behave like medieval lords over the serfdom of the serving soldiers. Reports of genuine grievances are fobbed off with replies like “matter is being taken up”, or “it is being pursued with the Government”, or “the MoD is not cooperating.”
Coupled with this are the reports of blatant corruption and malfeasance at the senior levels. All this has left the soldier, the veteran the widow and the serving junior officer feeling that the hierarchy is self-serving and feckless and that they are without representation in the corridors of power.
The defence of the nation is one of the most crucial tasks of any government. The head of the government should play a leading role in this. Yet Narendra Modi has failed sorely in this regard. He has used the Armed Forces merely as props for his popularity and his macho image. From promising to implement OROP in 2013 to hogging the credit for the Balakot air strikes, he has always shown his propensity to use the Armed Forces for self-glorification. Never has he taken any concrete policy decisions on important defence matters nor has he ever intervened in the MoD to push through important cases. Emerging only to bask in the reflected glory of the military, he has remained a Potemkin strongman.
It bears recollection that during the 6th Pay Commission, Lt Cols and equivalents were denied placement into the Pay Band 4 by the Pay Commission, upsetting the established seniority of the Armed Forces. Dr Manmohan Singh, the then PM, personally intervened in the matter and set things right. That showed true leadership. Bluster and bombastic statements of a 56 inch chest may play well to the galleries but ultimately concrete policy decisions and sensible implementation makes the difference. And given the present state of affairs a smoothly functioning higher defence organisation and a satisfied and motivated Armed Forces seems a distant dream.
(The writer is a former Indian Army Officer with extensive experience in border conflict and counter terrorism. He is presently pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Texas University)