.Pensioners on the warpath

Date: 21 Feb 2009


Frbruary 21, 2009

Pensioners on the warpath
Sandeep Unnithan
February 20, 2009 
India Today expert view on 

Pensioners on the warpath

For decades, Colonel Kanwar Bharadwaj's proudest possession was the Sena Medal which the President pinned on his chest for gallantry in the face of advancing Pakistani forces in Jammu and Kashmir during the 1971 war. Almost 30 years later, his son Captain Umang Bharadwaj was posthumously decorated with the Shaurya Chakra for fighting insurgents in the same state. 

Ex-servicemen returning their medals to Rashtrapati Bhavan

Recently, Kanwar packed his and his son's medals into a clear bag, taking them back to Rashtrapati Bhavan where he had so memorably been decorated. "We earned these medals in the face of fire, but the unequal treatment by the government has forced us to return them," says Colonel Bharadwaj, 65, who retired a decade ago. He joined thousands of other ex-servicemen who returned their medals in an attempt to sensitise the Government to their demand of One Rank One Pension (OROP) or the same pension for the same ranks irrespective of the date of retirement. 

India has a 1.1-million- strong army with a larger force of ex-servicemen— nearly two million pensioners, or two retired soldiers for every serving soldier. In contrast, there are 39 lakh central government employees and only 19 lakh pensioners, or one retired person for every two employees. This is because government servants retire at the age of 60, but soldiers who are recruited at the age of 19 begin retiring from the age of 35. This is done in order to keep the armed forces young.

Each year around 55,000 personnel retire from the armed forces but less than 10 per cent find re-employment in the government. In the absence of jobs, pension becomes a powerful rallying point for former servicemen. 

For close to two decades OROP—currently given only to MPs, service chiefs, army commanders and secretaries to the government—has been dangled as a carrot. Former servicemen are a respectable votebank with the ability to influence outcomes in several north Indian states, which is why they are courted. 

UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi endorsed OROP at a rally in Punjab in 2002 and the Congress even included it in its 2004 poll manifesto. With less than three months for the general elections, there are signs of this becoming a political issue again. 

Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Jaswant Singh has firmly endorsed it and BJP President Rajnath Singh said that the party would consider the demand very seriously and include it in its election manifesto. "This is not a committal answer and we are prepared to support only those political parties who will grant us OROP," says Lt-General Raj Kadyan (retd), President of the Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement (IESM).

The present Government has already ruled out OROP. Responding to a query from MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar, Minister of State for Defence M.M. Pallam Raju said OROP was unacceptable due to 'administrative, financial and legal reasons'. 

The financial implications— estimated at Rs 2,200 crore each year—and the prospects of similar demands from other government employees is one reason the political parties get cold feet. "The minute you open the door to OROP, the government will go bust," says a finance ministry bureaucrat. "If other employers like the Railways begin asking for OROP, the Government will simply be overwhelmed by requests."

There is, however, little unanimity on this. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence this year endorsed OROP for the armed forces. "The OROP demand is completely justified due to the unique nature of the armed forces. If MPs can get the same pension why can't a country with a trillion-dollar economy support its soldiers?" asks Chandrashekhar.

The Sixth Pay Commission is silent about OROP and has widened the disparities between ex-servicemen, say retired soldiers. A soldier retiring on December 31, 2005 for instance will draw Rs 3,917 throughout his life as pension but his compatriot retiring just a day later will draw Rs 6,100. 

Likewise, a hawaldar with 24 years of service who retires in December 2005 gets Rs 5,600 and a sepoy, who is two ranks his junior but retires after 2006 with 17 years of service receives Rs 6,860.

An out-of-the-box recommendation on how to reduce the pension burden did come, and not from the armed forces, but from the contentious Sixth Pay Commission. 

Last year, it suggested that service personnel be inducted into Central paramilitary organisations (CPOs) like the BSF and the CRPF after their early retirement where they could serve till the age of 55. 

This would reduce the need to pay full pensions, fill about 35,000 vacancies in the CPOs and defence civilian posts every year and reduce the government's pension burden by nearly Rs 800 crore each year which the government could use to pay OROP to past pensioners. Lateral inductions would in fact have obviated the need for more pensions. "If our soldiers are given some sort of employment till the age of 60, we will not need to pay them pensions," says Kadyan.

However, the Ministry of Home Affairs, which controls the CPOs, refused to allow lateral induction of ex-servicemen. In a letter to the Ministry of Defence last year, Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta ruled this out citing various problems of seniority, differing ethos and selection processes. 

The real reason say exservicemen is that the police organisations are afraid of losing control over the recruitment process and of being swamped by the armed forces.

With each passing year the pension bill has been increasing. Defence pensions currently account for less than 40 per cent of the government's annual pension bill of Rs 30,000 crore. "Must we continue to burden the taxpayer by carrying so many pensioners? Even the US cannot afford to give pensions to so many veterans," says Major-General Surjit Singh (retd), arguing for lateral induction into the paramilitaries to end the pension debate. But with innovative solutions being given short shrift, the war between the former servicemen and the Government seems to be going nowhere.