The Tribune: Sunday, May 23, 2010, Chandigarh, India
The ex-servicemen have been fighting for justice. In 2008, they took the unprecedented step of going public with their demands. Rallies were held at Gurgaon and 61 other cities throughout the country. The Sixth Pay Commission report had just come out and not unexpectedly the ex-servicemen got a raw deal.
By convention, a soldier is expected to maintain silence even after he sheds his uniform. He himself would prefer it that way. But his silence must be respected and reciprocated, instead of being exploited. His genuine aspirations must be met. Unfortunately, that is not being done.
Projecting one’s demand on a public platform was not an action taken easily or on impulse. Immediately on declassification of the Pay Commission report, the political leadership was contacted with all respect and deference that being the peoples’ representatives is their due. ‘One rank one pension’ or OROP, as it is popularly known, was the lead demand. It implies relating military pensions to length of service and rank on retirement, independent of the date of retirement.
Contact was established at the highest level in our political leadership. The only counter-argument was “if we give it to you, other government servants will also demand”. The ‘others’ are our own kith and kin, not adversaries. If they deserve it, certainly give it to them as well. However, if they are used as a pretext to deny the soldiers their rightful dues, then it is unfair.
It can then be argued that give OROP to only those retirees who like the soldiers stay away from their families for all/ most of their service life; to only those who perpetually follow a 24x7 work schedule; to those who face danger, and death on a daily basis; to those who are compulsorily retired when in mid-thirties on a pittance… and the list of differences goes on. Comparison is valid only between the similar.
The rally on April 27, 2008 was launched after due notice to the hierarchy. The government was apprised. There was concern. ‘Soldiers’ should not be doing it, we were reminded. When we claim soldiers are different and should not be clubbed with others, the notion is pooh-poohed. But in expectations we remain different. The dichotomy was pointed out. Silence. Placing our demand before the public was a compulsion forced by deaf ears; it was not a choice.
Seeing veterans on the road, even in a very disciplined manner could only jerk the authorities. It did. Within weeks of the first rally two of our demands were met; a separate pay commission for the defence forces and constitution of an Ex-Servicemen Commission. However, they failed to spread much cheer. The first would take effect only in 2016. Apart from failing to address immediate concern it was also looked at with suspicion.
Our bureaucracy-dominated government is known to find a difficulty for every solution, and there is enough time to do so. In the constitution of the Commission, the devil lay in details. The proposed list of members had only one retired military person. It even included a lady from political background, ostensibly to look after the interests of service widows, with whose condition she would be totally unfamiliar.
Interestingly, the commission is to be headed by a retired judge with no background in soldiering, the very basis for constituting a separate pay commission. The veterans rightly asked when the Women’s Commission is headed by a woman, the Minority Commission always by a person from the minorities, the Tribal Commission by someone from the tribal groupings, why the Ex-servicemen Commission should not be headed by an ex-serviceman? Silence.
The main demand of OROP remains unaddressed. The demand is neither huge nor extraordinary. It is not a demand for more money; it is rather a demand for equity and justice. Expecting equal remuneration for equal services cannot be called unreasonable. This makes the government reluctance to accept it even more intriguing. Defence forces are the last arrow in the country’s arsenal, also the most reliable. Picking at one’s healthiest tooth cannot be termed wise or rational.
The authorities have adopted many tricks to scuttle the OROP demand. They first ordered a committee (of bureaucrats, without a defence representative) to look into ‘OROP and related issues’. It only touched the so-called related issues. OROP was summarily rejected as being ‘administratively’ not feasible.
The government then claimed to be bound by the Committee’s recommendations. It is like the anecdote where a burglar pleaded innocence on the grounds that it was his hand that committed the crime and not he himself. In denying OROP the political class may not be complicit but they are apparently powerless.
There has surely been some enhancement announced for the pre-2006 pensioners. But there is still a wide gap between pre- and post-2006 categories. OROP has thus not been sanctioned, notwithstanding the government advertisements to the contrary.
There has been a spate of court decisions lately on pension related issues, all favouring the ESM. In one case the apex court used extremely harsh words against the government, which were reported in the media. The prevailing sentiments support the ESM demand.
The government needs to see the proverbial writing on the wall and sanction the long pending demand of OROP. Being a demand for justice the ESM will settle for nothing else. There is no wriggle room here. Yet, we will never cease to be what we always were while in uniform — disciplined, patriotic and responsible.
The writer is a former Deputy Chief of Army Staff
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