Why are the veterans up in arms, one may wonder? What has made the veterans go on a hunger fast at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi and in many other places across the country? The issue of One Rank One Pension (OROP), has finally caught media attention, and for the first time, the issues concerning the veterans are being actively debated on television. Perhaps the spotlight on OROP would have far greater had the Lalit Modi saga not occurred at the same time. That notwithstanding, it is a sad day for the country, if its veterans have been reduced to go on a relay hunger strike to press for their legitimate dues and shows up the callousness of successive governments and the nations bureaucracy.

Government inaction may cause the issue to spiral out of control. All veterans’ organisations have got together and there is now talk of direct action – a completely new form of agitation, whose outcome and consequences are yet not clear. this simply shows that the patience of the veterans is finally running out. For those that are living , that is. Many have passed away in a futile hope of getting their dues from a recalcitrant establishment.

The support to the veterans organisation is overwhelming. The anger is palpable and it is evident that this agitation is not going to run out of steam. Efforts by the bureaucracy to derail it by asking for OROP for the Central Armed Police Forces is laughable as CAPF personnel retire at the age of 60 and not in their mid thirties as do most of the Armed Forces personnel. More importantly, the issue was never about pension. It was always about pride, izzat, which the ex-serviceman faces on a daily basis. The stock of the forces is gradually on the decline and the politico bureaucratic nexus is seen as the spoiler.

The OROP is an old demand, which had its origins in 1973. Despite a brilliant military victory, or perhaps because of it, the Services found themselves shortchanged in the Third Pay Commission, when the pension of the soldier was arbitrarily brought down from 70 percent to 50 percent, and that of the civilians was increased from 33 percent to 50 percent. To compensate the soldiers for their early retirement, it was stated that soldiers retiring at the same rank and with the same length of service, would get the same pension. This simply meant that the soldiers who had retired earlier would get the same pension as those who are retiring now, if similarly placed in rank and service. This has not been fulfilled by the government till date, sighting financial constraints. But those constraints were mysteriously absentwhen the pensions of the civilian government employees was increased. Obviously, what was sauce or the goose, was not sauce for the gander.

In 2009, the Non Functional Upgrade for “Group A”, officers was carried out thus further eroding the status of armed forces officers. This was devious. It entitled a Group A officer in the civil services to keep getting pay upgrades, if promotion vacancies did not exist. Obviously, the pension component would also be greater. As per Peter’s Principle, “managers rise to their level of their incompetence”. Here, the civil services ensured for themselves a very sweet deal, getting increased pay for the same appointment, a typical “son in law attitude”. All financial prudence was thrown to the winds, because the babus were involved. NFU is patently unjust, yet it has been sanctioned. OROP is a legitimate due, yet the government has been dithering in its implementation for four decades.

By now the nation ought to hang its head in shame. The pictures of those standing and signing in blood are there before the nation, yet very few television channels find time for them. These are the people, old, grey haired, and disabled who should be playing with their grand children and telling them tales of nation building. These are the people who took the national flag and held it high, who gave their youth for the country, so that we could live and progress as a free nation. These old men, the citizens of our country are returning their medals that they once wore with pride and paraded before the nation on 26 January. These are the people who still feel the Chief is their Chief and who are still ready to fight and serve and in the process pay the ultimate price for the izzat of the unit and the national flag. Remember, a soldier stands under the national flag, protects and salutes the national flag and his body is draped for the ultimate sacrifice with the national flag. We owe it to our men and the widows and this time we should not let them down.

What is the government’s track record while dealing with the veterans and why the deep distrust on OROP? This deep distrust has been built by the government, between the veterans and the Ministry of Defence also colloquially called the Ministry against Defence (MAD) in private emails flying thick and fast between the veterans. The distrust lies in the manner by which the service headquarters are an appendage to the Ministry of Defence. The powers rest with the Bureaucrat, the accountability with the Service Headquarters. The Services are ignored and this apathy continues while dealing with the veterans. In the name of civilian supremacy, the Services are devalued. They were downright cheated while implementing the fourth pay commission (1986) recommendations, when the rank pay was merged along with basic pay. A young Major had to take the Government to court, where an obstinate bureaucracy fought tooth and nail to perpetrate a lie. Fortunately, after many years of litigation the Apex Court ordered the Government to pay up. Something that should have been granted with grace ultimately had to be done by order of the Supreme Court of India.

The list of veteran’s woes are never ending. A former war injured Vice Chief of the Army had to take recourse of the courts for justice. War widows are denied their dues, and the list is unfortunately endless. The distrust is complete and total. Into this atmosphere comes the current defence minister, meaning well but unable to get past the bureaucracy at the ministry of finance who now want to redefine the OROP. The veterans are tired of promises and statements regarding sanction of the same. They feel short changed, as time is running out and they see their friends fall like nine pins while the state dilly dallies and buys time. The fault ultimately lies with the government for mishandling not one, but a number of issues.

How do other nations, USA, France, Japan and England treat their soldiers? In these countries, the pension scales are 60 to 75 percent, with a host of other privileges. In India, politically the OROP till date has been a vote garner and every political party has played it to the hilt. In the last two general elections it has been employed as a favourite method to garner veterans’ votes. It is roughly estimated that with families and dependents veterans votes could amount to approximately 26 lakh ex-servicemen and 6.5 lakh widows, plus around 13 lac soldiers serving and their respective families. In certain states veterans are game changers like Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan and of course Uttarakhand. Both national parties the Congress and the BJP have promised OROP in an undiluted manner, as defined by the veterans. However, time is running out and things may turn ugly. The ball is firmly in the lap of the present government which would do well to remember that “time and tide wait for no man”.

(Brig C S Thapa is a veteran settled in Dehra Doon who writes for various news papers and magazines)

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