I never expected that one day, like my father (also a retired service Army officer), I would be earning a pension for the services I rendered to the Army and Nation for 40 years. In all the years that my father earned a pension and I earned a normal salary I never bothered about pension details. He was an honourable and honest man who worked hard to give his two sons a quality education, sacrificing the comforts and luxuries which were due to him at his seniority and age.
He, however, did expect that his needs through his days as a retired veteran would be catered through appropriate pension; he had no major savings and no property to sell to make the ‘moolah’ which was necessary to afford luxuries. For him, dignity was the watchword and he maintained his carefully nurtured Indian Army public image. With his friends and colleagues during bridge evenings at our house, he would often discuss One Rank One Pension (OROP), way back in the Eighties. I heard the term then but never investigated beyond that. In 1997 after the Fifth Pay Commission I heard him complain for the first time. The complaint was based on the fact that for him who had retired in the Seventies and those who did so in the Nineties the cost of living to maintain basic standards was the same. Yet he was receiving lesser by quite some margin. He was older and he was unhappy. It occurred to me that his savings had been minuscule to cater for the cost of living around the turn of the Millennium, while those veterans of the Nineties and beyond had much higher savings. So obviously he was suffering on two counts; lower pension than those of his rank and equivalent service and lower savings because of earlier retirement. Obviously he deserved better if he had to maintain the same standard of living; he was more advanced in years than the recent retirees but that did not reduce his daily needs.
The ignominy really came in 2008 when the Sixth Pay Commission hit usall with its numerous anomalies; he now discovered that he was receiving fewer pensions than even the Colonels who were retiring after 01 Jan 2006. It meant that he was expected to further lower his standards; and his savings were now older by ten years. The Supreme Court (SC) ruling in the ‘Maj Gen Vains case’ restored his pension to be marginally above Brigadiers but less than the Major Generals who retired after 2006. However, the ignominy continued because the government did not implement the full SC ruling which actually amounted to OROP.
One of the first things he did in 2008 after I explained to him about the setting up of a new veteran forum was to tell me to send his contribution to the organisation. I did so and received a very response from the Secretary. I kept the old man informed of most developments thereafter from Maj or Navdeep Singh’s blog. My father passed away three years ago disappointed that OROP did not materialise in his lifetime.
In this story the lesson is clearly evident, if anyone who hasn’t understood OROP wishes to be more aware. It simply means that for the same rank and same length of service the pension earned by a veteran has to be the same irrespective of the date of retirement.
The problem goes back to 1973 when the Third Pay Commission reduced the pension of JCOs and OR to 50 percent of last pay from the existing 70 percent and increased that of the civilian government employees from 30 to 50 percent. Obviously information on this was lacking among Army personnel for many years and there were few veteran organisations to fight this injustice. They weren’t generally aware that the government had made promises to ensure that the compensation for early retirement would be in the form of OROP; the same would not be available to other government servants whose personnel all retired at the maximum government retirement age. Awareness on all this came with the proliferation of information through the internet and much credit must be given to the various veteran organisations who fought for justice.
I for one do believe that the bureaucracy that has a historic contempt for servicemen, under the mistaken notion of civilian control over the armed forces being bureaucratic control and not political control, would go to any extent to ensure that the service personnel receive minimum privileges. This is so evident from the manner in which various legal cases pertaining to service privileges legally decided in favour of service personnel/veterans are regularly challenged in higher courts. This creates the ignominy of serving personnel axing their own feet for they too are future veterans and are forced to fight against their own future rights. Protocol levels for Service officers also continued to drop every few years.
Return of medals, blood signed memorandums et al, as protests, did not get the political or bureaucratic authorities to bat an eyelid for at least five years. In fact, the veteran representatives who went to submitcampaign medals did not even get the respect due to them or a meeting with the Supreme Commander. In the face of all this, maintaining the momentum of the agitation for OROP with requisite dignity has been challenging and the veterans deserve credit for the stamina and will.
However, the understanding of our countrymen with regard to OROP remains one of sympathy without being sufficiently informed; It is not alms that the soldier is seeking, but his rights. There is a need for far greater dissemination of information to allow the public to perceive the reasons correctly and not imagine that these are favours that are being sought. The basic arguments remain –
• OROP is not pay, it is rightful compensation for services already rendered. It was promised to the Services 40 years ago and then repeatedly ignored by every government. The legitimate symbolic protests were virtually treated with contempt by the previous government.
• Service pension has to be differently viewed in comparison to pension of other government servants because of the variable ages at which service personnel retire. Retirement is as early as the age of 34 with no assured second careers. Service personnel retire early to maintain a youthful Force, better able to address the multiple internal and external security threats which the nation faces. Almost 87 percent of the personnel retire between the age of 34 and 48 preventing them from earning the maximum pension, like their civilian counterparts. Their scope for savings from earned pay thus stands greatly reduced and their total earnings are also considerably lower than their civilian counterparts.
• There can be no comparison between veteran servicemen and retirees of Central Armed Police Forces. It is a misnomer that service conditions are similar. That apart, all CAPF personnel retire at the maximum government retirement age, currently 60, which entail that service rendered by policemen is almost double that of servicemen affording full scope for maximum savings and earning the maximum pension of the rank achieved.
• The pyramidal structure of the Services means that promotion opportunities are greatly restricted unlike other government organisations where the employees have greater chances of promotion and at relatively younger age. They have in addition the privilege of Non Functional Upgradation, which means that irrespective of rank achieved there is regular up-scaling of pay based upon years of service rendered. This does not exist for the three Services.
The previous government made a mockery of the issue by announcing different versions of OROP while in effect it was nothing but resolution of the pay band system and the pensions based upon it, thoroughly confused by the Sixth Pay Commission and then resolved over time.The Supreme Court on 17 Feb 2015 reminded the NDA government of the pending implementation of its six year old judgment and warned that if not implemented within three months, it would amount to contempt of court.
Today, OROP has come into prominence through the various symbolic acts of veteran servicemen which are within norms of dignified democratic protest. Yet it failed to move any political authority until the preelection period in 2014, when various political parties tried to capitalise on the issue. The BJP made it a part of its poll plank and boldly announced the same in an ex-servicemen dominated preelection rally at Rewari. The previous government dawdled over the issue, but was never serious in its intent.
The total monies required for implementation of OROP is not large and is in the range of Rs 8000 crore. With a 40 year wait behind them the veterans are obviously running out of patience and one of the major reasons for that is the pitiable pension many of the much older veterans and widows are receiving reducing them to virtual penury. Significant to mention here that many such veterans have expired and many more will pass away, in the course of the interminable wait. The issue has had a cascading rise in importance with all major media sources reminding the government of its promise and of the Supreme Court judgment. It is not insignificant that it has the personal attention of the Prime Minister with the Raksha Mantri monitoring it by the day. The contentious issue on which it is apparently stuck is the details involved with the finances.
What the veteran community is peeved about are four issues. Firstly, the Prime Minister’s contention that OROP is more complicated than originally perceived because it has different definitions. This is being countered with the argument that there is a single and simple definition of OROP as originally understood by Parliament; it can be made as complicated as one wishes to by adding clauses and contingencies where none exist.
Secondly, it is being perceived that the bureaucracy is living up to its promise of complicating the issue to such an extent that it is once again shelved without decision. One may recall an oft repeated story in Services circles of a bureaucrat who stated abroad within earshot of a Defence Attache that OROP would be granted over his dead body.
Thirdly, there is considerable apprehension that the political authority in its naivety may fall for the recommendation that the best decision would be to hand over the issue for examination in detail by a body of experts who form the Seventh Pay Commission. This would actually be the last straw because to date the decisions of the Sixth Pay Commission are being contested and anomalies yet to be refined. Such a decision it is feared will send OROP into an interminable spiral. The fourth and now perhaps most significant issue that is seizing the veteran organisations is the refusal of the government in earmarking a date by which the final go ahead will be given. A series of promises about potential approval and implementation made by various important functionaries, including the Army Chief, have failed to materialise, creating the suspicion that the political authority is being misguided by the bureaucracy. The prime issue under suspicion is the possibility of drawing the CAPFs into the fray with similar demands which will then raise the cost of OROP.
All the above is yet in the realm of apprehension. This comes about when a community of disciplined citizens is treated shabbily and a history of such treatment by the bureaucracy exists. It will help to better perceive the issue and the constant attempts at placing obstacles in the way if one remembers that even in the case of disability pensions the authorities have contested in a higher court almost every case decided in favour of individuals. The slow rate of approvals of disability pension almost appears a deliberate ploy to exasperate the veteran community and test its stamina and will. The parallel is now perceived to being applied to OROP. Mercifully the Raksha Mantri is now grappling with the issue of disability court cases and giving it a full review.
Given all the facts above, the public can well perceive the need for early decision. An argument which goes in favour of quicker decision making is the parallel of waiver of farmer loans in 2012. Rs 60,000 crores were earmarked for this and the decision was taken as part of the processing of the annual budget. The data on this could not have been less complicated than OROP, yet if the finance bureaucracy in particular could work out details and earmark a sum seven times higher there is no reason why OROP should languish so long.
The last aspect which needs highlighting is that the veteran organisations have considerable belief in the Prime Minister and the Raksha Mantri but very little in the bureaucracy under them. It is the trust deficit between the Services and the bureaucracy which does the nation little good. The veterans believe firmly that the calculations of the outgo and the essential rules is not rocket science and that the delay is only to somehow scuttle OROP in the only acceptable form to the veterans, replacing it with some complicated formulae which will take quite some time to comprehend. Till date, the Sixth Pay Commission’s confusing provisions are yet to apply to many a veteran and widow in far flung rural areas where the pension disbursing authority has no idea about interpretation of complex rules. The Army for one constantly sends teams of soldiers and clerks to resolve these issues in cooperation with local veteran organisations.
Unfortunately, delay in OROP is leading to division of opinion among veterans on the methodology of pressurising the government and keeping OROP at centre stage until it is achieved in its entirety; no compromises on the latter from any quarter. There is a call for direct action if a date of implementation is not announced while there are others who believe that the traditional dignity of the armed forces cannot be sacrificed. The latter calls for trust in the Prime Minister and his promise; action should only be contemplated if even he fails the veterans.
The compromise solution of keeping the pressure through regular media contact and continuously educating the public appears a more prudent one. Either way, OROP has reached a stage of emotions that it will be difficult to scuttle. The education of the public, which still has much respect for the uniform is a must to bring in a national emotional footprint on this. It is unlikely that we could ever come to a stage such as that faced by the ‘Bonus Army’ in the US in the 1930s when World War I veterans were fired upon while virtually ‘gheraoing’ Capitol Hill for the release of their dues. It was considered one of the worst decisions by a President in American history.
The writer is a former GOC of the Srinagar based 15 Corps and Military Secretary of the Indian Army. He is currently associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and Delhi Policy Group. This article first appeared in Swarajya Magazine and is published here with the permission of the author)