Monday, 7 November 2016

One Rank One Pension

With the recent suicide of a veteran of the Indian Army, protesting the delay in implementation of OROP, I will try to explain the meaning of OROP, the background to the agitation and the way forward from here.

One Rank One Pension(OROP) is a long standing demand of the Indian Armed Forces that two soldiers with the same rank and same length of service should draw the same pension, irrespective of when they retired. This opposes the current system, where the pension of an ex serviceman is a function of the salary he drew during his last month of service.

Unlike a civilian government employee who retires at the age of 60, the average length of service of a soldier is much shorter. An ordinary soldier retires after completing 17 years of service. This means that a person who entered the military at the age of 18, is only 35 years at the time of retirement. He still has at least 20 years of family pressures and the requirement for money. Effectively, a jawan who retired in 2000 and is only 50 years old draws a significantly smaller pension than a jawan who retired in 2010, even if they were of the same rank and served the country for an equal amount of time. This is despite both having nearly similar financial requirements.

Due to this, soldiers are forced to take a second profession after retirement. Since military experience is not directly transferable into the civilian world, he is often forced to work for a lesser salary than he would ordinarily draw. In such a situation, pension provides a very important addition to a veteran's salary. However, with the current system, inflation makes the pension insignificant after 10-15 years.

What should also be noted is successive Pay Commissions adjust the salaries of all Government officials depending on price of commodities, and the economy of the country. While a civilian employee reaps the fruits of these Pay Commissions till the age of 60, a soldier's salary is still fixed at rates set by the Pay Commission immediately preceding his retirement.

Another affected demographic is veterans and war widows who are older than 65 years, and have retired from all forms of occupation. They are forced to live on a pension calculated from a salary they drew 30 years ago. To put things in context, the price of Gold(which can be taken as an indicator of the price of other commodities) has increased 10 times in the last 30 years.

The Government on the other hand, has been reluctant to give in to all the demands by the veterans. Primary among these reasons is financial. OROP would greatly increase the burden on the exchequer and would lead to a significant increase in the Military Budget.

Now, let's look into some background behind the demands for OROP.

The early demands for OROP date back to the 1970s. In 1973, two years after the 1971 war, Indira Gandhi in a move to reduce the influence of the Armed Forces reduced Defence pension by 20-40 percent. This was done by a Pay Commission with ZERO representation of the Armed Forces. Again, and I can't stress this enough - This was only 2 years after the Army gave India its finest military victory ever. In 1986, under Rajiv Gandhi, the Basic Pay of Armed Forces personnel were further reduced relative to the pay scales of Police personnel.

In 2008, the Sixth Pay Commission was enacted, with new pay bands which effectively debased Army ranks by one pay band versus police personnel. There have been a large number of similar decisions in successive Pay Commissions which have reduced the salaries and allowances of the Armed Forces versus civilian government employees. For context, an IAS officer posted in Guwahati draws a larger Tough Area Allowance than an Army officer posted at the Siachen Glacier. Further, OROP was granted to Senior civil servants and police officers.

Following the 6th Pay Commission, the Armed Forces (both serving and veteran) feel cheated and this has led to a fair amount of resentment towards the government. One Rank One Pension has served as a flag under which the Armed Forces have united to stand up against this perceived step motherly treatment being meted out to the Army.

It is important to note, that for the Fauji, this is no longer only a matter of money, but also symbolic of honour and respect. Granting OROP will go a LONG way in re-assuring the soldier that he isn't being taken for granted.

Now let's get to reactions from the Government's side. The UPA Government in 2011 set up the Koshyari Committee to look at the merits and demerits of OROP. The committee came out in favour of OROP and gave recommendations which were acceptable to both the Government and Veterans. However, the Congress government was very slow to reach out to ex-servicemen and by 2014, no real headway had been made.

The 2014 election saw a large number of serving Armed Forces personnel vote for the first time. This led to a lot of noise from both the UPA and the NDA promising OROP(it was there in both manifestos). It is worth noting though, that 10 years of UPA government before this had only seen further degradation of the status of the Armed Forces.

While the NDA Government made many promises and Modi made grand speeches during the campaign to the election, there was no action for a long time. In 2015, ex-servicemen associations started wide spread protests against this delay in implementing OROP. Jantar Mantar became the focal point of these protests with hunger strikes by ex servicemen. Four former Army Chiefs also joined in these protests. These protests have been completely peaceful, and devoid of any rioting, naarebaazi or violence associated with protests.

The government reacted in an EXTREMELY shameful manner. Ex servicemen were manhandled, beaten up and lathi charged. Veterans with more than 20 years of service were assaulted and arrested by policemen.

In April 2015, the Government finally announced OROP, but greatly diluting the demands of the veterans. For example, soldiers who had opted for voluntary retirement were not to reap the benefits for OROP. (A RETARDED decision for reasons I list out here). Coming under intense pressure, the government did announce a classic political u-turn promising benefits to soldiers who retired prematurely. It also announced some sort of timeline for the rollout of the scheme.

This announcement was largely publicised by the media and BJP supporters as giving the Army its due. However, veterans are still highly unhappy since the Government has released OROP in a diluted form, going against the recommendations of the Koshyari Committee(remember the committee in 2011 which I mentioned). While the Armed Forces want revision of pensions to happen every year, the government wants to do this only every 5 years. The provisions for servicemen who retire prematurely also remains a bone of contention.

Another important area of disagreement is the pension which would be given. While veterans say that the most recent salary should be fixed for pensions across the board, the government wants to fix an average of the maximum and minimum for a rank to be the pension for all soldiers.

Apart from this, there have been large delays in the implementation of OROP with a large number of veterans still not getting the updated pensions. This has caused the protests to not just continue, but also intensify because veterans feel the Government has only side stepped the issue without truly addressing it. And has fooled the country into believing it has given the veterans their due.

This brings us to the suicide of Ram Kishan Grewal. An ex-serviceman with 28 years of service to the Indian Army, Grewal committed suicide alleging the delays and dilution of OROP as the reason.

Sadly, this has been converted into a political and media circus. Rahul Gandhi has come out in support of Grewal and OROP. (Rahul Gandhi is the same person whose grandmother removed OROP, and whose father further diluted the status of veterans). Kejriwal has gone for the typical media circus which he's best at. General VK Singh has gone on to question the ex soldier's mental state, showing his links to the Congress.

While this suicide has brought the issue back into public attention, the current debate has digressed from the core issues. While these protests may have OROP as their face, they are symbolic of the Armed Forces standing up for what they perceive to their rights. The soldier feels slighted by the bureaucracy and the politicians, and is finally demanding the respect he feels he deserves.

The government on the other hand, has financial constraints it needs to look into. Along with that, committees such as the Pay Commission are comprised of Civil Servants who see the implementation of OROP as a reduction in their influence and power, in comparison to the Armed Forces.

It is high time the Government works out a solution to this problem where the Soldier get to keep his self respect. The following thoughts need to be kept in mind:

  1. For the Armed Forces, retention of OROP for soldiers who retire prematurely is sacrosanct. An announcement of this would go a long way in calming the veteran's anger.
  2. This is a highly emotional issue for the soldier, and needs to be dealt with a lot of emotional maturity on the part of the government. Veterans need to be assured that OROP is a matter of importance to the government.
  3. While lip service is in its own place, it needs to be followed up by action. A partial and immediate rollout of some of the arrears due to ex servicemen would show the government's intent.
  4. While the government has fiscal pressures, merely saying "financial issues" is not enough. Possibly making figures public would allay some of the veteran's fears.
  5. Veterans also need to take a more mature approach and leave a little more room for negotiation.
The more the government delays OROP, the more the morale of the Armed Forces fall. The falling status of the Armed Forces has led to a commensurate reduction in quality and number of aspirants for the Armed Forces. Our Army faces shortages in junior ranks, and unless the Armed Forces are promised they will be looked after, both financially and in terms of "respect" and "honour", this is only going to increase.

Jai Hind.

No comments:

Post a Comment