The media discourse on One Rank, One Pension (OROP) is focused only on the financial aspect of the issue which, perhaps, is understandable. It, however, is but one dimension of the larger issue relating to the honour and izzat of the Indian armed forces personnel.
It is a matter of official records that, till 1973, the armed forces personnel were placed in the Government of India pay scales. To recompense them for their extremely demanding service conditions, including forfeiture of many fundamental rights, they were paid the scales applicable to their civilian counterparts enhanced by an “X factor”. Further, their pensions as a percentage of pay were higher than that of the other Central government employees. This was to recompense for the compulsory early retirement (more than 90 per cent of personnel retire before 58 years of age as against 100 per cent of all civilians including railways, police, paramilitary, etc).
This was considered fair and legitimate because the armed forces’ service conditions were, and continue to be, incomparable to any other organisation’s in the country, be it a paramilitary force, the police or any other. Successive generations of military leadership explained to the men they commanded that their nation conferred unequ-alled izzat to them for voluntary acceptance of the rigours that it demanded of them. There was nothing extraordinary or colonial about the practice of paying them well above their civilian counterparts.
This is what happens the world over. But the Third Pay Commission’s award in 1973 changed all that. In the name of parity, it removed the pay/pension differential historically and universally accorded to the armed forces. In fact, it brought down the armed forces’ pay and pension with a stroke of the same pen with which it raised the pension of all other Central government servants. Unlike the OROP today, no “technical” or “arithmetic” difficulties were encountered then.
There has been a deliberate and systematic erosion of the armed forces’ status vis-à-vis other organs of the state before and after the Third Pay Commission. Successive chiefs of the three services have made attempts to correct it as indeed they are mandated by law to do. OROP, whose origins can be traced back to the parliamentary committee headed by K.P. Singh Deo in early 1980s, was a valiant parliamentary effort to eke out some vestiges of the servicemen’s standing vis-à-vis their civilian counterparts. Since in our administrative structure pay differential is the only accepted indicator of the relative place in the pecking order, regrettably, honour and izzat that a grateful nation confers upon its soldiers came to be monetised.
All that is, however, history. Now that the OROP definition stands approved by the current as well as the previous Parliament and by the Supreme Court, the issue at hand is not of reviewing the definition, but only of actually implementing it. It is self-evident that any delay in doing so would only increase the accumulated financial burden. Further, the Supreme Court has described pension as deferred wages. So, any scaling down of the OROP award would tantamount to reducing the serving forces’ wage enhancement assurance which is an unthinkable proposition today as the issue is in public domain. Any plea by the government, of funds not being available to pay legitimate dues to the last bastion of national security, i.e. the armed forces, would be specious if not outright disingenuous.
Some critique has appeared in a section of the press, of the chiefs who wrote to the President last week. And more will come following the letter of 10 former service chiefs to the Prime Minister on Monday. This criticism is based on a lack of understanding of the chiefs’ responsibility. Every person in service presently is tomorrow’s veteran and many of them were inspired to join the services by senior family members, friends or well-wishers who are now veterans. Thus, they have close insight of their stake in it all. Today’s chiefs have the complex challenge at hand — they cannot compromise the government and, equally, they are trusted by their men to speak the truth. They have to struggle to make themselves heard by the political leadership in the cacophony of misinformation being relentlessly drummed out at the behest of vested interests.
Under the circumstances, former chiefs were not only most suited, but were indeed the only suited persons to respectfully seek out the presidential ear, as well as the Prime Minister’s. There is no other official in the services’ hierarchy who experiences the chiefs’ anguish because they all have a chief to bare their souls to. Lest there be a mistake in understanding it, the worthies wrote to the supreme commander of the armed forces of India, but really appealed to the nation’s chief executive because they felt it was their moral responsibility to place on record their anxiety for the national security implications, especially after the “high-handed trea-tment of veterans on Aug-ust 14 at Jantar Mantar”.
Prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had included OROP approval in his party manifesto and publicly promised it. It is unfortunate that 15 months downstream it is yet to be implemented by a government that was voted to power with the largest majority in three decades. Further, the Union Council of Ministers and the entire bureaucratic establishment have allowed the issue to spin out of control. It is now a political bullet that Prime Minister Modi has been left to bite himself. So, he should not be surprised if the continuously swelling numbers of armed forces veterans across the country, starting with Bihar, judge his party by how he personally handles OROP. This assessment is based on two truisms: once a soldier always a soldier and that the Indian soldier is a formidable companion. It is easy to earn his loyalty, difficult to keep it and impossible to retrieve if lost. He readily trusts his superiors, but continuously evaluates them and is unforgiving if ever they belie his generous trust.
Since Independence, the Indian soldier has honourably and ethically delivered fully on his oath of allegiance and not once sought to change the Constitution he swore to defend. It is fully within this framework that the veterans are exercising their constitutional rights. And, where the administration has short changed them over decades, they are now seeking a robust political corrective.
Vice-Admiral retired Pradeep Kaushiva as commandant of the National Defence College, New Delhi