India Today June 26, 2010
In the Kargil War of 1999, the battle for Tololing will be remembered for its sheer ferocity and for delivering the Indian Army one of its most important victories. Havildar Digendra Kumar, a burly commando from the Rajputana Regiment and part of a 10-man team led by Major Vivek Gupta, climbed the 15,000-ft-high feature and engaged in furious close-quarter combat with soldiers of the Pakistani Northern Light Infantry on June 12.
Digendra Kumar (41)
INJURY: Sustained five gunshot wounds in the assault on Tololing during the 1999 Kargil War. The only survivor of the 2 Rajputana Rifles assault team. Decorated with Maha Vir Chakra, the second highest gallantry award.
STATUS: Retired from the army with no disability pension. Did not receive any benefits given to Kargil heroes. Filed petition in the Armed Forces Tribunal which decided in his favour. Has not received pension even three months after the verdict.
At dawn, Digendra, his body riddled with five bullets, was the sole survivor of the assault team that had conquered the icy heights. He was decorated with a Maha Vir Chakra, the nation's second highest gallantry award. Nearly 12 years later, Digendra's battle is still on. With the government.
He was denied a disability pension by the army on the grounds that he had voluntarily retired in 2005. Digendra didn't get any of the benefits given to other Kargil war heroes, again because he was not given a disability pension.
In March, the Jaipur bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal recommended that he should be given a disability pension, but even after three months, he is yet to hear from the Principal Controller of Defence Accounts (Pensions) (PCDA), the ultimate authority that disburses pensions. "It hurts when you get nothing for fighting for your motherland, but what can one do? I will get my pension when the Government decides," says Digendra, visibly resigned to a long wait.
There are hundreds of soldiers like him, who may not be as heavily decorated but have similar stories to tell. For them, it is the endless rounds of dusty government offices, courtrooms or poignant attempts at drawing attention to their cause-veterans like Captain Chanan Singh Sidhu, who lost his right arm in 1970, burnt their medals and prosthetic limbs at India Gate three years ago.
Reet Mahendra Paul Singh (67)
INJURY: Lost right eye while leading an armoured assault on Pakistani positions in 1965 Indo-Pak War when he was hit by shell splinters.
STATUS: He retired after five years of service in 1969 but the army took only one year of service into account while calculating his disability pension. Filed a petition in 1996 in the Punjab & Haryana High Court and struggled for 14 years. This month an armed forces tribunal ruled in his favour, revising his pension from Rs 14,819 to Rs 22,000.
"It is sad. At one stage, nearly 80 per cent of military cases before the courts were on account of disability pension," says General V.P. Malik (retired). Of the 7,995 army-related cases pending before the Supreme Court and various high courts, 3,531 petitions, or nearly 44 per cent, were pension related. Most of these cases have now been transferred to the Armed Forces Tribunals (AFT) set up in 2009 to decide military disputes. An AFT member says over half the pension-related cases were about disability pension, the issue of whether or not a certain injury was caused by military service.
To start with, the soldiers have to plead their case, an insult to heroes. Typically, babudom has created a maze of clearances. Disability is defined by doctors, army officers and accountants, who then determine the quantum of disability pension. Bullet injuries are not difficult to cite, but other ailments like hypertension, which could be a result of numerous postings, have to be argued. All of which consume time and effort and result in trauma.
The percentage of the disability and whether it is attributable to or aggravated by service is assessed by Invaliding or Release Medical Boards (IMBs/RMBs) which examine retiring soldiers before their discharge. The boards' conclusions are sent to the PCDA (Pensions) based in Allahabad, which eventually disburses the pension. This is where the anomalies set in. Often soldiers are improperly assessed by the medical boards or administrative and accounts authorities. Terming Havildar Mohar Singh's injuries as constitutional in nature, the PCDA rejected his claim for grant of disability pension.
Disabled and totally dependent on his family members after being involved in a road accident in Arunachal Pradesh eight years ago, Mohar was brought into court on a stretcher. The shocked AFT bench not only restored his disability pension but also levied a Rs 1-lakh fine on the three members of an armed forces board that had declared him ineligible for disability pension. The problem?
"It is sad. At one stage, nearly 80 per cent of military cases before the courts were on account of disability pension." General V.P. Malik, (Retd)
"Rules are interpreted in a restrictive and literal manner rather than a liberal and beneficial manner as indicated by those very rules," says Navdeep Singh, a Chandigarh-based lawyer and defence counsel in several such cases. In 2005, to make the system more responsive towards the disabled soldiers, the medical boards, and not the PCDA, were given the final say in deciding injuries. Veterans say the move merely replaced the bureaucracy of the PCDA with that of the Defence Ministry and the army. They also argue that there is a different set of rules when it comes to such cases of senior officers.
Last year, 13 officers of the rank of major-general and above applied for and received disability pension. "Senior officers manipulate the system to get disability pension while officers like me are sent out because we cannot continue to serve because of injuries," says Captain M.P. Singh.
Mohar Singh (45)
INJURY: Sustained wounds in an army truck accident in Arunachal Pradesh in 2002. Diagnosed with motor neuron disorder, given disability pension and discharged.
STATUS: Completely dependent on his family for even the smallest of chores. An Appeal Medical Board in 2007 declared his condition not a result of military service which meant he would not get disability pension. Filed writ petition before high court. Last month, an armed forces medical tribunal ruled in his favour and levied a fine of Rs 1 lakh on officers of the medical board.
Those who fight with spirit have to learn to live with the letter of the law. Even when the high court grants veterans their disability pensions, the government challenges the cases in the Supreme Court, prolonging the agony of the litigants.
Captain Sidhu, for instance, won the case in the Punjab and Haryana High Court but had to fight it all the way up to the Supreme Court when the Government challenged the verdict. Dismissing the appeal in April, the Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Markandeya Katju and A.K. Patnaik asked the government to stop treating veterans like beggars when it came to their pensions and emoluments.
"If this is the manner in which the army personnel are treated, it can only be said that it is extremely unfortunate. The army personnel are bravely defending the country, even at the cost of their lives and we feel that they should be treated in a better and more humane manner by governmental authorities, particularly, in respect of their emoluments, pension and other benefits," the bench said. Strangely, these sentiments are not shared by army authorities or by the ministry. "The military is going as per the policy laid down in the Army Act. We feel that the procedure is absolutely right," says a senior army official.
The establishment of the AFT with a principal bench in Delhi and benches in various other cities has come as a relief in many such cases. Yet a slow-grinding system does not keep pace with the rapid relief offered by the AFT. Several litigants like Digendra are yet to see their pension settlements even after the three-month delivery period laid down in their judgements.
"It is like adding insult to injury," says Colonel S.B. Singh (retired) a Jaipur-based lawyer for Digendra and Mohar. Several other veterans in the Punjab and Haryana AFT have not received their pensions even a year after the judgements. "The Defence Ministry does not adhere to the time-frame prescribed by the courts unless contempt petitions are filed," says Navdeep.
Speedy justice, it seems, is a far cry in the Defence Ministry.
THE DIFFERENTLY ABLED BRASS
Senior officers may be getting preferential treatment
Among the worst things that can happen to a career military officer is to become a "category" or to be put in a low medical grade which could hinder further promotions. "I would hate to become a category even after I retire. What will my men think of me?" says a lieutenant-general. Not anymore, it would seem. Last year, 13 officers applied for and received disability pension. The list includes four lieutenant-generals and nine major-generals. This would not be so strange. "The health of an officer does deteriorate due to health and service conditions. We have a Release Medical Board, which has stringent procedures and certifies officers six months before release," says Major-General Sanjeev Madhok, additional director, General Public Information. But this figure is nearly twice that of general officers who received disability pension in 2008. The trend continues in 2010. Three lieutenant-generals and two major-generals, who retired until April this year, received disability pension. The Sixth Pay Commission last year hiked disability pension to a maximum of 30 per cent of their last salary. Is this serving as a dubious incentive? Most officials agree that the seniors hide ailments through their service and declare them on their way out to claim pension benefits. "It's just being plain greedy," says Major-General Surjit Singh (Retired).
Soldiers of Misfortune
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