Monday, July 5, 2010

Unfair to military personnel They must get their due by Lt-Gen Vijay Oberoi (retd

Governments, they say, are impersonal and yet a democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. We take pride in saying that we are the world’s largest democracy. Yet, the people’s voice is largely not heard because the political leadership and the bureaucrats who advise them are so bound by rules and regulations (of their own making unfortunately) that unless they are nudged, nay shoved violently, it is difficult to change their somnambulant state.
Unfortunately, the military fraternity of both serving and retired categories seems to be experiencing the brunt of it, especially since early 2008, when the continuing and tragic saga of the Sixth Pay Commission commenced. While the commission has been hogging the headlines, there are many other important issues that also need to be highlighted so that the people, who after all are supposedly the real rulers of the country, are aware of them.
This piece is about a few inter-linked yet vastly different issues that are making military personnel very angry and justifiably so. The first is the case of the “rank pay”, where despite an elaborate and clear ruling by the Supreme Court, the authorities, ill advised by the bureaucracy, have filed another appeal! This is a farce of monumental proportions being played against a large number of affected military officers. As a case of bureaucratic pusillanimity and procrastination, this does take the cake. Let me briefly narrate the essentials.

In 1986, the recommendations of the Fourth Pay Commission included the grant of “rank pay” to all defence officers of the rank up to brigadier and equivalent. However, while implementing the same, equivalent amounts were reduced from the pay, by an omission or by design (both perceptions exist)! No military person noticed this at that time. This may be hard to believe but the prevailing culture at that time was that most military personnel were fairly blasé about their pay and allowances.

It was in fact considered infra dig to get in to mundane issues like entitlements, as it was a firm belief that the authorities will always look after one’s interests. It is now clear that we were really naive. The authorities in the corridors of South and North Blocks, however, had little time for such niceties! Having learnt bitter lessons after the Sixth Pay Commission, the military has now become wiser, but at the huge cost of losing confidence, trust and fair play in the government (read bureaucracy).

Reverting to the “rank pay” case, the issue came to light only when retired Major Dhannapalan discovered it, approached the Kerala High Court for redress and fought it with the unrelenting Ministry of Defence (MoD) in both the High Court and the Supreme Court, till he won the case in 2005, after nine years. However, while implementing the judgment, the MoD gave benefits only to the officer. The representations of a large number of similarly affected officers were ignored. This resulted in a flood of writ petitions, as the affected officers had no other option but to seek justice from the courts. Finally, despite the vehement opposition by the MoD, the Supreme Court ruled on March 8, 2010, that the benefit of the judgment must be extended to all eligible military officers and also awarded 6 per cent interest on the amount due to the officers.

While the affected officers were still doing their calculations, the empire struck back with an appeal against the ruling. Why is the MoD deliberately trying to deny justice to a large number of military officers? Is it a delaying tactic designed to cheat the military personnel and stall the implementation of the judgment, or a case of losing face or the fear of being penalised for a deliberate act of commission, or a combination of all three? Whatever be the motivation, the military personnel are livid on being denied their legitimate emoluments.

This also begs the larger question of the government being the single biggest litigant, keeping the courts busy and in the process preventing them from dispensing justice to more needy persons. I fail to understand the logic of the government contesting every order the Supreme Court has passed in favour of defence forces. It did so for umpteen years in the case of fixation of pension of Major-Generals. In the case of a disabled officer, Capt CS Sidhu, the Supreme Court was constrained to remark that the government treated its soldiers worse than beggars!
Dr V. Moily, Minister of Law and Justice, has recently announced the National Litigation Policy, which aims to reduce average pendency time from 15 years to three years. The policy emphasises that the government must cease to be a compulsive litigant. The Law Minister may keep making announcements and publishing policies, but will the stalwarts in the MoD as well as other ministries listen? In the meantime, the large numbers of affected military personnel continue to be deprived of their legitimate emoluments.

Let me now highlight the second and a more recent issue, relating to jobs for military personnel after their retirement. In 2004, the Directorate-General of Resettlement, as part of its drive for securing jobs for retired officers and soldiers, had persuaded the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) to accept retired military personnel for running toll plazas on highways. Being disciplined and honest, they are doing a superb job and have already increased collections at the ex-servicemen-run toll plazas from the earlier 15 to 80 per cent. There are over 25,000 military veterans running NHAI-owned toll plazas, while another 10,000 provide logistical support.

Now, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has decided to auction all the toll plazas to the highest bidder. The motive is undoubtedly monetary, while efficient running or jobs for the needy veterans do not seem to have any place in the thinking of the government! As a sop, the NHAI has stated that the toll plazas in Jammu and Kashmir, northeastern states or other disturbed areas would continue to be kept for the military veterans sponsored by the Director-General of Resettlement. How nice, but no toll plaza exists in these areas!

While the government is keen to employ military veterans to do all the difficult fighting against the Maoists, including the highly dangerous clearance of mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), when it comes to giving them their dues in terms of their legitimate emoluments or jobs as part of their rehabilitation, it baulks at and panders to power and money brokers. Is this our version of democracy?

The writer is a former Vice-Chief of the Army

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