On 15 August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised the soldiers safeguarding India’s sovereignty in eastern Ladakh. Ironically, a month earlier on 16 July, a Ministry of Defence letter, sanctioning ‘invalid pension’ for soldiers with less than 10 years in service spelled a devious rider, virtually making it impossible for any eligible soldier to get the benefit. The sanction had come after decades of representation/litigation and a nudge from the Supreme Court.
The media and the veteran community hauled the defence bureaucracy over the coals for “stabbing the soldier in the back” by design or default. The question that goes a begging is why are the concerned ministers are not being held accountable?
The case in point
As per pension regulations for the armed forces, if a soldier with less than 10 years of service is disabled out of service due to an injury that is neither attributable to, nor aggravated by military service, then she/he is not entitled to any disability pension. However, in lieu, one-time gratuity calculated at the rate of half-a-month’s pay for each completed half year of qualifying service, is granted. Similarly placed personnel who have served for 10 years and above are granted a pension equivalent to normal pension adjusted to the number of years in service.
This provision covers injuries suffered when not on duty, or disability due to diseases not caused by military service. For example, if a soldier with nine years of service is disabled in an accident while on leave, she/he will only be entitled to gratuity equivalent to nine months of her/his pay—a paltry sum despite high chances of having done, say, a tenure in Siachen and another two in operational areas.
This provision is a legacy of the colonial Army, and for long the armed forces, affected soldiers and the veteran community, have represented for its redressal. The Supreme Court, high courts and the Armed Forces Tribunal had a number of times advised the government to amend this regulation to also grant this pension instead of just the one-time gratuity to personnel having less than 10 years service. The Department of Pensions & Pensioners’ Welfare (DPPW) was the first to act in February 2019. Based on a gazette notification dated 4 January 2019, this category of pension was granted to a government servant with less than 10 years of service for physical or mental infirmity, which “permanently incapacitates him (or her) for service”. It is laudatory that the DPPW acted within one month of the notification.
Rather than taking suo moto cognisance of the provision made applicable to all government employees and immediately extending the same to soldiers, the MoD “considered” the matter for a year-and-a-half, before issuing the said letter. The ministry sadistically added a qualifier to the basic provision “permanently incapacitates him/her for military service” and amended it to read: “incapacitates them from military service as well as civil reemployment”. Addition of the qualifier “as well as civil reemployment” implies that while the disability renders the soldier unfit for military service, she/he will be entitled to the said category of pension, only if she/he is incapable of doing any civilian job. This letter flies in the face of government policy and well-established international norms to reserve jobs for people with disability in general and soldiers with disability in particular.
Missing political oversight
The rivalry between the bureaucracy and the military has a long history, but where is the political oversight? Is political empathy restricted to saluting the fallen and making political capital out of sacrifices of the soldiers? One can understand that the Defence Minister or the Minister of State for Defence are not expected to correct drafts of policy letters, but what explains their silence, once the matter was brought in the open by the media more than a month ago.
Nothing stopped Defence Minister Rajnath Singh from rendering an apology, and giving directions for the amended policy letter to be issued within 24 hours. It would have endeared him to the Army. The secretary of the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (DESW) should have been removed and disciplinary action initiated against the errant officials for drafting a mischievous order.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh must peruse the 2015 report of Raksha Mantri’s Committee of Experts, which was based on the initiative of then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. The report highlights in detail all that is wrong with the DESW and the measures to redress the same. It seems nothing has changed in the past five years. It is time to appoint a separate ‘Minister for Veteran Affairs’ to directly supervise the DESW.
In future, the accountability with respect to the MoD must not be deflected towards the bureaucracy. Our soldiers always rise to the occasion in times of crisis with respect to national security. It is the time for the politicians to rise to their welfare.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.