Millennium Post

Shoe pinches for ex-soldiers

The ex-servicemen community is abuzz these days with news of a high powered committee set up by the government on matters pertaining to their persistent demands regarding One Rank One Pension [OROP], and a few other pay anomalies. The committee shall function under the cabinet secretary with the defence secretary, secretary ex-servicemen welfare, secretary department of welfare, personnel and training, expenditure secretary and principal secretary to the prime minister as members. It is to submit its report by 8 August so that, it is speculated, it can be announced on 15 August.

The ex-servicemen community has been up in arms, signing in blood and returning their medals to the previous president, who never met them to hear their views. OROP has been a consistent demand because the gap between the pensions drawn for same length of service has considerably widened based on the recommendations of successive pay commissions. The government is also under pressure from the serving community for a large number of issues but the most prominent is non-functional upgrade as it affects the status of the army officer. It seems that government is caught in a web of its own making, and has thus taken this step of forming a committee. The outcome is, therefore, awaited and battle lines are drawn with most veterans not expecting any thing from the government.

It was initially stated that there were five anomalies regarding  serving soldiers and four issues regarding the veterans, which this committee is examining.  However, there are many other pressing issues which have been left out. It is learnt that the three service chiefs gave a presentation on 18 July on five issues to this committee. It is not known who took the decision to include only these nine issues out of a stated 39 anomalies. Is this a case of pressure or political compulsion. The common perception is that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government likes to take popular decisions. What has got the government out of its slumber is definitely nothing else but politics, as the number of ex-servicemen are around 27 lakh and, with dependents, comprise of 1.25 crore. Come 2014, this is a huge vote bank spread out across the country. If this vote bank is cultivated now, then the government can exploit these votes. Ex-servicemen, who have taken a stand and returned medals, portray UPA-II in poor light. The story has been picked up by a vigilant media and the Anna hunger strike is going strong. It is thus that most of the issues that have been picked up from the core list of demands are populist in nature. The important issue of broad banding for disabled soldiers was left out. Today, there are a large number of avoidable litigation cases which are best seen as harassment by disabled veterans and their dependents and by  those of us who understand their pain.

A large number of veterans are of the opinion that nothing much will come out of this committee. They point out that the committee lacks a representative from the services. They also point out that a parliamentary standing committee on defence, consisting of eminent politicians also called the Koshyary committee report has already recommended the OROP. There is another factor which may prompt the government to nip any protest in the bud. Earlier, the president avoided meeting the veterans. With the ex-defence minister Pranab Mukherjee becoming President and the supreme commander of the forces, the equation changes. The embarrassment caused to the government by veterans returning their medals to the supreme commander, who had earlier been a high flying defence minister, is avoidable. Veterans definitely stand a better chance of access to the supreme commander now. Mukherjee has a mind of his own and soldiers have interacted with him in large numbers.  Thus, access to Rashtrapati Bhavan is definitely possible, though it may not be easy.

The government today stands beleaguered from all sides. Thus, the run up to 2014 become crucial. The choices for the government are either to concede these demands, or stall them. This will be a careful decision based on political calculations and not out of a genuine concern for soldiers. As stated earlier, the anomalies picked up are popular in nature, thus political mileage is the bottom line. It will be a careful calibrated decision, and shall politically take the sting out  of the Koshyary report to make it look like a creation of the Congress. Economics is the last thing that the government has in mind. It lacks the funds for a mountain strike corps. It has a decreasing growth rate, but suddenly has funds for OROP. The choice for the UPA-II is between the devil and the deep sea.  But, in the first place, who asked them to land up in this unenviable situation? This year, 8 August is a significant day for Rahul Gandhi is likely to enter government on this day.  Essentially, the Congress is gaining momentum from this day onwards and,  therefore, the political choice of the UPA-II will be to go with or without the ex-servicemen vote. To those of us who view this entire exercise as a ploy for gaining time, one thing has become clear with the appointment of the committee. The ex-servicemen are feeling the financial pinch. They stand united as their fourth pay commission arrears are still due. There are ‘miles to go before we sleep’.

C S Thapa is a retired brigadier.
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