India has fought some tough battles in the relatively recent past: The Indo-Pak War of 1948, the Sino-Indian War of 1962; the Indo-Pak Wars of 1965 and 1971, the Kargil- War of 1999. Yet, those who actually fought in those bloody battles and managed to survive are still fighting for their existence. If that is not a shame, what is?
Over 25 lakh veterans are raising their voices yet again, seeking justice through One Rank One Pay (OROP), and an explanation for why their existence matters so little even when they risked their lives to safeguard those of others. The younger generation is probably watching and wondering if they should volunteer to put their lives at stake in the name of patriotism.
Since 1972, every successive government has failed to implement the OROP, which is a demand for equal pension for retiring from a given rank (after a given period of service) irrespective of when the serviceman or woman retires. It seeks any hike in the pension rates to be passed automatically to the past pensioners.
"The younger generation is probably watching and wondering if they should volunteer to put their lives at stake in the name of patriotism."
Why so? Because several anomalies have cropped up with every pay commission, leaving a large number of veterans literally fighting for their existence. Those who are campaigning for OROP are those who have not enjoyed a pay hike under the successive pay commission since 1972, making do with a paltry pension which is 50% of their last salary drawn. To illustrate, a soldier who retired in the 1950s draws a pension of Rs 1000, while one who retired in 2000, serving the same tenure, probably receives around Rs 10,000.
And now briefly, the anomalies: The third pay commission in 1972 cut down the pension of the Armed Forces officers from 70% to 50% to bring it at par with the pensions of their civilian counterparts (which was incidentally raised from 30% to 50%). So while an officer who was earning a pension of Rs 700 saw it reduced to 500 overnight, a civilian enjoyed a 20% increase.
The sixth pay commission increased the pay of all serving employees of the Central Government as on 1 January 2006. Additionally it granted a non-functional up-gradation (NFU) scheme to 'Group A' services of which unfortunately Defence Services is not a part.
The NFU ensures that all officers of a particular service retire at the maximum pay scale; so if one person of a particular seniority gets promoted to the next rank, his entire batch if not promoted within two years is admitted to the same pay grade irrespective of merit.
But while NFU is enjoyed by all 'Group A' officers posted to central police/paramilitary organisations like the Border Security Force, Assam Rifles and Indo-Tibetan Border Police functioning under Army formations in counter insurgency operations and deployed on Line of Control/Line of actual control, Armed Forces officers are left out of its ambit.
There are more anomalies if one cares to probe, and here is why an average young Indian may not opt for the Armed Forces in the future. In any other government service -- Indian Administrative Service, Central Police Forces, Border Security Forces, Postal Services etc -- both officers and clerks get the opportunity to work for 60 years and retire with maximum pension after 32 years of service. Additionally they will also retire in the highest grade with NFU.
"A handful (only 0.2%) that will make it to the top ranks will still not make it to pay grades of the IAS... But every bureaucrat shall retire at the highest pay grade, whether he has been found fit for promotion or not!"
While any of the above government services will ensure a substantial financial gain irrespective of merit and performance, the Armed Forces will be a far more demanding and far less rewarding. Armed Forces personnel will always be expected to be on standby to lay down their lives at the whim and fancy of the incumbent government, sent out on every dangerous rescue mission and insurgency operation when all other federal forces fail.
Moreover, given the pyramidal system of appointment, Armed Forces personnel will also almost never be in a position to enjoy a full pension which is granted after 32 years of service. A handful (only 0.2%) that will make it to the top ranks will still not make it to pay grades of the IAS, as has been ensured by the civilian bureaucracy. They will always earn lower salary scales and therefore get lower pensions when they retire. But every bureaucrat shall retire at the highest pay grade, whether he has been found fit for promotion or not!
Meanwhile, jawans/seamen/airmen, the men in the ranks, will continue to live under most despicable conditions. The OROP is more than justified in the case of jawans who retire at just 38 years -- their fittest limit to stay in the army. Ironically the fifth pay commission even equated the jawan to an unskilled labour, who spends more time than any other worker in developing several skills as a trained soldier.
Translating OROP on paper means an increase in pension payment by 40%, which is up to Rs 10,000 crore every year. This is a huge pressure for the exchequer at a time when it is trying to reduce its non-planned expenditures. PM Modi may be tweeting his fingers numb "On OROP- the Govt is committed to OROP & there's no doubt about it," but concrete actions are yet to be implemented. Finance Minister P Chidambaram may have announced a hike in the defence budget, before demitting office, and the present government increased it by 10.95%, but that amount will be just enough to take care of inflation and no more.
At a time when the world's life expectancy is estimated to reach 75 years by 2050, the post-retirement years will get increasingly difficult especially for men in the ranks or their widows who will not find it easy to look for alternative jobs. The rising cost of living and inflation will make retirement planning even more critical than ever, raising several questions around how best to look after these men and women who have sacrificed their welfare for us? Can there any other way to keep this highly trained manpower from being wasted and left to fight poverty? Can the jawans, for instance be absorbed by the Central Police Forces after retirement?
These debates shall continue. Meanwhile, all we can feel are helplessness and shame at our inability to provide an adequate safety net and succour to the most deserving community of our country.