Monday, April 20, 2009
Retired and Hurt by Syed Nazakat
Collateral damage: Subedar Sardar Singh surrenders his medals at Jantar Mantar|Photo: Sanjay Ahlawat
ARMY Unhappy with low pensions, ex-servicemen return their medals By Syed Nazakat
They sacrificed their best years for the armed forces. Yet, a generation of soldiers, sailors and airmen are still battling for a fair pension. Some, after a lifetime of loyalty, have to retire to a life of poverty.
Hawaldar Bagh Singh fought in the Bangladesh war. He kept firing at the enemy even after taking 12 bullets in his legs and won a Sena Medal. Later, he served on the Rajasthan border and in the northeast, and retired in 1989.
Today, Bagh makes do with a meagre pension of Rs 4,500. On March 14, after years of pleas for a better pension, he packed his medal in a polythene bag and mailed it to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the place where he was so memorably decorated. At age 65, Bagh works his land to support his family.
"It is painful to return the medal. But medals can't earn you a living. It is a disgrace that after all those years of service and sacrifice we have been denied decent pension," Bagh told THE WEEK. "We want a fair pension so that we live the rest of our lives with dignity."
Like him, thousands of ex-servicemen returned their medals to the President, protesting the government's failure to accept their demand for One Rank One Pension (OROP), i.e., equal pension in each rank irrespective of the date of retirement. Currently, there is no parity. For instance, a soldier who retired on December 31, 2005 gets Rs 3,917 as pension, but another who retired a day later gets Rs 6,100. Likewise, a hawaldar who retired in December 2005 with 24 years in service gets ?Rs 5,600 and a sepoy, who is two ranks his junior but retire after 2006 with 17 years of service, gets Rs 6,860. About 13,000 medals have been returned in the last two months.
"We will give the government some time to react. If it does not, we will take other measures, like a nationwide signature campaign. We are soldiers. We will not sit silent," said Major General (retd) Satbir Singh, vice-chairman of Indian ex-servicemen movement. In March, a group of veterans descended on New Delhi from all parts of the country and staged a quiet, dignified protest, wearing their medals. "We have been campaigning in vain for years. Our anger is against politicians who have never fulfilled their promises," said Satbir.
India has nearly two million ex-servicemen, whose ranks swell by 55,000 every year. Unlike other government servants, who retire at the age of 60, most soldiers are relieved in their late 30s or early 40s to keep the forces young. In the absence of jobs, pension becomes the only rallying point for them.
When Hawaldar Ram Chander Dagar retired from the Army at age 37, the eldest of his four children was in class 10. A pension of Rs 3,000 was not enough even to feed them. "Fortunately, we had some land, and we all worked to make our living from that," said Dagar, who lost his right arm in a road accident some years ago.
Lt Gen. (retd) Raj Kadyan, who heads the Indian ex-servicemen movement, said those who attack OROP, saying it could raise a similar demand from civilian employees, are ignorant of the forces. Raj returned his 19 medals-including a Param Vishisht Seva Medal, an Ati Vishisht Seva Medal and a Vishisht Seva Medal-earned over four decades. "When a jawan retires at the age of 40 and becomes jobless, you can only imagine how he survives with such a meagre pension," he said.
The veterans, fighting the battle from 1983, expected the Sixth Pay Commission to eliminate the differences, but it further widened the gap. The UPA government had ruled out OROP. Minister of State for Defence M.M. Pallam Raju said OROP was unacceptable due to administrative, financial and legal reasons. But the ex-servicemen's move to return medals just ahead of the general elections will embarrass the Congress, whose 2004 election manifesto had promised to resolve the issue.
BJP leader L.K. Advani promised that his party would implement OROP if voted to power. "I was pained to see that many ex-servicemen recently gave up their bravery medals in protest against the non-fulfilment of this demand. We are fully committed to implementing OROP," said Advani.
The veterans won't be taken in by a promise made so close to the election. Said Bagh: "We are not going to give up. We might have lost a battle, but we can still win the war."
Retired and hurt
They [ex-servicemen] have a genuine demand. It should be fulfilled.
Former Army chief, Gen VP Malik
As a mark of protest, we are returning the medals to the President. A soldier wears his medal with pride, but we are left with no choice.
Lt Gen (Retd) Raj Kadyan
It is unfortunate that veterans are on roads demanding pension.
Brigadier (Retd) Gurmeet Kanwal,
director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies
The right to equal pension at each rank for the same length of service derives from the same tenet.
Maj Gen (Retd) Surjit Singh