Centre seesaw on OROP unfortunate
Is the Modi government displaying an unfortunate lack of attention to ex-servicemen by delaying the implementation of the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme? A vocal war veteran community has successfully mobilised public support for their demand. The movement has not only sustained itself but is growing from strength to strength. What began as a murmur has grown into an agitation, which has now peaked with three ex-servicemen sitting in a fast unto death in Jantar Mantar while their colleagues demand the implementation of OROP.
Worried about the adverse impact on the armed forces, in an unusual gesture, at least 10 former service chiefs have recently written an open letter to the Prime Minister to intervene and expressed their concern. They have warned the government that forcing Veterans to take to the streets was a grave mistake.
Successive governments are aware that Ex-servicemen Associations have been agitating for the implementation of OROP Scheme from 2008 onwards. It is pertinent to note that the NDA won the trust of the armed forces before the 2014 general elections partly on three promises made to ex-servicemen- setting up of a war memorial in the heart of Delhi, appointing a veteran’s commission and implementing OROP. While the Modi government is yet to move on the first two, the OROP is yet to be implemented.
Over two million ex-servicemen want a uniform pension for defence personnel retiring under the same rank with the same length of service, irrespective of their date of retirement. In 2009, about 300 war veterans held a massive protest on 8, February 2009 and marched to the Rashtrapathi Bhavan pressing for their demand and even returned their medals in protest. The Supreme Court also came to their rescue in 2009 by directing the Union Government to implement OROP. Moreover, a Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence, and Rajya Sabha Committee on petitions have also recommended holistic implementation of the scheme. After almost a decade of ignoring the demand, the UPA suddenly changed its stance as the 2014 general elections neared and allocated Rs. 500 crores for the scheme. It accepted the demand after the personal intervention of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi.
In his first full budget last July, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley reaffirmed his party’s commitment by allotting Rs 1,000 crore towards the scheme. However, that particular allotment has lapsed and no such provision was made in this year’s budget. In fact on the completion of Modi’s one year in office there were speculations that OROP would be announced in the Mathura rally. The veterans were further disappointed when the Prime Minister simply reiterated his promise on his Independence Day speech without any time frame. They suspect that the government wants to dilute the very definition of OROP. Hence, the street protests at Jantar Mantar.
What is the hitch? Apparently, the government is caught between the budgeting and the methodology of the implementation of OROP. There is a gap between the figures proposed by the finance ministry and defence ministry. The defence ministry has worked out a figure of Rs. 8,298.48 crores while their counterparts in finance want to reduce that sum. Also, there is a difference of cut off date. The war veteran suspects that the government is diluting its commitment to saving Rs. 4,000 crores. They feel that the time for reinterpretation is over and a decision has to be taken and it should be taken soon.
The government also seems worried that OROP could lead to a similar demand from civilian pensioners and paramilitary forces.
Unfortunately, the whole thing has now been politicised. For instance, the issue is now moving towards the Bihar elections, as some believe that Prime Minister Modi might announce the OROP nearer the Bihar polls to get an advantage. He has already announced a mega package of Rs 1.25 lakh crores for Bihar recently. Naturally, the JD (U) and the Congress, which have stakes in Bihar, have criticised it as a vote bank package. The other opposition parties have also joined the chorus. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi has reached Jantar Mantar to support the agitating war veterans and questioned the Prime Minister why the government did not have money for veterans when it could announce a mega package for Bihar. The AAP party has also jumped into the movement. Ironically, all political parties have lent lip sympathy for the cause.
The former armed forces chiefs fear that if the issue is not resolved soon there is a danger of its adverse impact on the defence services. The attraction of military service could also diminish. Already not many are willing to join the armed forces as their sights are on big multinational jobs with fat paychecks. The non-implementation of OROP would only result in more disenchantment.
Secondly, the armed forces have so far obeyed their political masters. This delay in the OROP implementation might change this equation and might affect the civil-military relationship. The ex-servicemen seem to fear that the political leadership was neglecting them while during the wartime they were called upon to risk their lives for the country.
Thirdly, the serving defence personnel have full sympathy with the ex-servicemen and their demands as they know that they too will join their ranks after retirement. The serving soldiers are concerned about the dignity of the ex-servicemen. Serving defence personnel should not be allowed to get involved in the agitation as it might complicate the matters.
The time for action is now. It is good that the PMO has opened a channel to the war veterans and the sooner they find a resolution the better. Any delay may affect the morale of serving personnel and could well have security implications.