OROP: Litmus test for civil-military ties

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and former defence minister A K Antony recently raked up the controversy of the Modi government’s failure to implement the One Rank One Pension scheme (OROP) which affects the 24 lakh plus ex-servicemen (ESM) besides another 50,000 men who retire annually from military service. Earlier the Congress-led UPA government in February 2014 had allocated Rs 500 crore just before elections hoping to garner almost 70 lakh votes of ESM and their dependents.

On February 17, 2015, the Supreme Court gave the government 90 days to implement their six-year-old order on OROP, under threat of contempt, which ended on May 17, 2015. The SC Constitution bench had held in 2009 that “pension is not a bounty... but ... a right and there can be no differential pensions for the same rank vide Article 14 of the Constitution”.

The SC being on recess now is a breather for the government.On April 1, 2010, a bench of Justices Katju and Patnaik of the SC criticised the government, telling them to adopt a humane approach towards those bravely defending the country's borders, saying: "If a person goes to any part of Delhi and sits for begging, he will earn Rs 1,000 every day ... It is unfortunate that you are treating them like beggars".

After a demoralising drop in their pensions from the then existing OROP in 1973 by 20 per cent (70 to 50) while that for civil services (already at comparatively very high pay levels) increased from 30 to 50, the ESM have struggled  for OROP meaning "same pension for same length of service, irrespective of date of retirement", since 1982. The same definition was accepted by Koshiyari committee of parliament in 2010.

Soldiers, sailors and airmen enter military service at a young age of 16-18 years and 80-82 per cent of them retire at the same rank in their mid 30s – just when their domestic responsibilities increase. Another 5-6 per cent of Junior Commissioned Officers and Non Commissioned Officers retire when they are only 45 years. Further 5-7 per cent of the officers retire below 54 years, saddled with family and domestic responsibilities. A sepoy who retired before 1996 gets 82 per cent  less pension than one who retired after January 1, 2006, and a Major who retired before 1996 gets 53 per cent less pension than one retired after January 1, 2006.

Now, the ESM have planned to undertake a ‘Maha Sangram’ on June 14, across the country, to remind the NDA government of the need to redeem its pre-cum-post election promise by none other than the prime minister himself on several occasions. Evidently, Modi was wrongly briefed by the defence ministry bureaucracy that the OROP was implemented already, when he declared it so on October 23, 2014, in Siachen.  
The IESM (Indian Ex-servicemen Movement) was started in 2007 only to ensure the implementation of OROP, when apathetic UPA had turned a deaf ear. This   compelled the ESM to peacefully but forcefully demonstrate their displeasure by return of medals, war decorations besides petitions signed in blood to the President.

Causing discontent

With OROP, 56 per cent of ESM (sepoys) who retire after 17 years of service would get a 40 per cent hike, others much less. Often, a retired officer of a much higher rank draws much less pension than an officer who served under him – but retired later at a junior rank. It causes discontent, which is mostly not so in civil service or Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF).

Unlike most other government jobs, all military personnel live away from their families for over two-thirds of their career in remote, hazardous and stressful environments; under rigid discipline 24/7/365 which makes them age faster and then they retire based on the rank attained, owing to a narrow pyramidal organisational structure.

Moreover, the ESM have limited re-employment opportunities owing to the reluctance of state governments and the CAPF to employ them. Therefore, how does the soldier manage to balance his family budget with increased responsibilities and inflation, after his youth was sacrificed in military service?

Unlike India, in most nations, the governments stand behind their military men in a big way. This is evident from the fact that the US, the UK, France and Pakistan pay their ESM 10-15 per cent higher pensions than civilians. While Japan, Australia and Germany pay their military 20-30 per cent more than their civilian government retirees.  What the ESM are demanding through OROP is restoration of status-quo-ante-1973, mainly due to their service, promotion and retirement conditions.

The ESM community fervently hope that the government will keep in mind what Chanakya stated 2300 years ago and decide on OROP: “(Soldier) is....the very basis and silent, barely visible cornerstone …of the entire nation building activity... the day when the Mauryan soldier has to demand his dues or, worse, plead for them, will be a sad day and will point to multiple and multi-level failures in the governance machinery...”

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