OROP Telling The Truth
After a number of formal and informal meetings between the overnment and the leaders of agitating Ex-Servicemen (ESM), the government decided to implement the long outstanding demand for OROP. In the proposed implementation of OROP, however, the government has tweaked the accepted definition unfavourably muddling up the whole issue to the annoyance of the ESM
Ex-Servicemen (ESM) of India have been fighting a battle they never trained for in a battlefield they had never visualised. Yes, Jantar Mantar is the battlefield churned by military veterans for nearly three months culminating in a rally on September 12, 2015. Their objective is ‘one rank one pension’ (OROP)—“same rank, same pension for the same length of service irrespective of date of retirement with the proviso that future enhancements shall be automatically passed on to the past pensioners”.
While the demand of the ESM has been unanimously approved and accepted by two successive parliaments, the outgoing UPA and the current NDA governments, its implementation has remained stuck in politico-bureaucratic hang-fire. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi had mocked at the UPA government for its failure to give the ESM their dues in his election speeches and vowed to fulfil their long outstanding demand soon after ascending to power, the ESM gave him more than a year but caught him when they saw the time slipping and the government visibly shying from its commitment.
After a number of formal and informal meetings between the overnment and the leaders of agitating ESM, Lt Gen Balbir Singh (retd), Maj Gen Satbir Singh (retd) and Col Inderjit Singh (retd) facilitated initially by former Army Chief Gen VP Malik and later by Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar, the government decided to implement the long outstanding demand for OROP. In the proposed implementation of OROP, however, the government has tweaked the accepted definition unfavourably muddling up the whole issue to the annoyance of the ESM.
A Perception of Relegation
What has peeved the military fraternity most is the perceived injustice meted out to them insidiously and systematically at the behest of a jealous bureaucracy since 1970s. In a swift military onslaught in December 1971, India broke Pakistan into two and Bangladesh was born from this historic victory. Suddenly, India had become a regional power. Gen SHFJ Manekshaw, the Army Chief who led India to this victory, was awarded ‘Padma Vibhushan’ in 1972 and honoured with the highest military rank of Field Marshal just prior to his retirement in 1973. Soldiers had become beloved of the masses. For India and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi the achievement was awesome. And lo, coming on the heels these phenomenal times, the 3rdCentral Pay Commission (CPC) slashed the military personnel’s pension scales by 30 per cent, whereas that of the Civil Services were raised by 20 per cent. This was very much resented by the military but those were the days when resentment could be suppressed and hidden from public gaze. More than the ESM protest rallies at Jantar Mantar today, what should really worry the government is the simmering resentment among serving soldiers that is already viral on the social media. What has anguished the military personnel most is not reduction in their entitlement in monetary terms but reduction in their status and position vis-à-vis other government services.
The role, terms and conditions of service of personnel joining the Armed Forces are markedly distinct from the rest in the country. Their challenges, risks and difficulties are unique. They are governed by very stringent military law that deprives soldiers of liberties and rights enjoyed by civilian employees. That is why prior to the 3rd CPC, the pay and pension regime of the Armed Forces was kept as distinct from all other government services as the conditions of their service. Even as the Armed Forces were not much affected by the CPC recommendations, each of the first two CPCs had a military officer as one of its members. Intriguingly, for reasons unknown, the practice of having a military member on the panel was abruptly dispensed with from 3rd CPC onwards even as all the military personnel were brought within its purview for the first time. Nevertheless, some of the principles—“inclusiveness, comprehensibility and adequacy for pay structure to be sound in nature”—devised by the 3rd CPC for guiding itself and the government seemed innocuous and fair. “The true test which the government should adopt”, the Commission said in its report in 1973, “is to know whether the Service is attractive and it retains the people it needs and if these people are satisfied by what they are getting paid.” Until the 1970s, military service was a career preferred by the youth and envied by others. Today, soldiering is the last option of the youth in the country. Why? The answer is that the “attractiveness” of the service, highlighted by the 3rd CPC in its above referred report, was killed by the Commission itself by divesting the military of its distinct pay and pension structure. Allegedly going beyond its terms of reference, the Commission destroyed the privileged edge of military service by reducing the military pensions and at the same time enhancing the civilians—a live case of wresting from Peter to pay Paul!
The soldiers and ESM are not fretting only against the step-brotherly treatment they are subjected to by the bureaucracy. If the growing volume of angry posts on social media and the unrelenting protests of the ESM are any indication, their faith in the higher military leadership is declining fast giving way to suspicions of generals, admirals and air marshals failing to communicate effectively with the top decision making authority. The Armed Forces constitute nearly 1/4th of the 5.5 million central government employees on whose pay and pension structures the 7thCPC will be reporting hopefully by this year end. Yet, not only does the military go unrepresented at the Panel that has no experience of the unique features of military service, even at the secretarial level where the CPC is aided by a workforce of over 200 officers drawn from almost all other service groups and departments including Geological Survey of India, CPWD, National Informatics Centre and so on, the military remains unrepresented. So, the injury inflicted on the military may be due to ignorance if not design. Clearly, there are grounds on which the military perception of relegation has grown in the post Manekshaw era.
Machinations with Impunity
The ‘VRS’ controversy in the government’s proposed OROP settlement is the latest evidence of bureaucratic ignorance of military service matters that has already embarrassed the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister, both having to explain it almost on a daily basis. The issue of OROP itself is another example of how simple, straight and settled issues can be muddled and complications can be invented. A straight look at the issue shows that OROP is unambiguously defined by a Parliamentary Committee, supported by all political parties, accepted unanimously by the Parliament of the country, budgeted twice by two different governments, emphatically declared and repeatedly assured by the Prime Minister. Where was the need for ‘negotiating a settlement’ with the agitating ESM? Have they demanded anything that is not already sanctioned? If future enhancements are to be“automatically passed on to the past pensioners”, why is five-yearly or any periodic review required? When “the same rank and same length of service” are already accepted as ‘equalising factors’, why complicate it by suggesting ‘average of the calendar year 2013’? The One-Man Committee is unnecessary because, if the accepted definition of OROP is taken as a term of reference by it, there cannot be any other solution but to roll it out with a software mechanism at the disbursing levels to integrate enhancements as and when they occur for all military pensioners.
Exaggerated financial estimates have been bloated to astronomical levels to mislead the public, scare the government and puncture Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s resolve to implement the ORO as previously approved and promised. Facts and figures of military pension budget vis-à-vis OROP demolish these exaggerations weirdly concocted and hyped from Rs 8300 crore to 22,000 crore and subsequent spiralling to unaffordable levels. Mathematical facts concerning OROP need to be separated from wild conjectures and speculative fears.
Initial pay-out of OROP including arrears earlier assumed to take effect at the ‘top of the scale’ as on April 1, 2004 and if paid on April 1, 2015 stood at Rs 8,294 crore. Whereas the ongoing delay in implementation would have marginally bloated this amount, it would now be considerably reduced in view of the Government proposing to calculate OROP dues at the average of pension rates that existed in calendar year 2013. Further, the roll out is also proposed to be effective not from April 1 but July 1, 2014. By this decision the Government the projected OROP budget will be further reduced by approximately Rs 2100 crore. Yet, the arbitrary figures ranging from Rs 10,000 crore to 22,000 crore have been extravagantly and quite frequently fed to the media and public magnifying a financial mole hill as if it were an unsurmountable mountain. It is, therefore, necessary to remove this illusion of so-called ‘unaffordable financial burden’ by explaining the primary figures of military pension vis-à-vis the future effect of OROP (see table).
Amusing as it might appear to some learned analysts, the OROP burden will decline every successive year rather than escalating. Normal escalation rate of pension budget shall, of course, continue to be determined by other existing factors other than the OROP incremental effect. It might appear strange to those who have heard that every year thousands of military pensioners are added to the existing 2.6 million and, therefore, so much more pension burden is added to the annual pension budget. But there is a catch in it. The 6th Pay Commission had resorted to ‘bunching’ of service seniority of military personnel in different trades for the purpose of fixing their pay scales in respective pay band. As a consequence, these personnel are now retiring drawing pension at the ‘bunched’ scale despite the number of their years in service being different. These bunched categories are now in their last leg of service and would taper off in another 4-5 years. Thanks to this ‘bunching effect’, the enhanced proportion of OROP will diminish rather than escalate every year.
Salvage Cash from Money Guzzlers
At a time when the Finance Ministry and economists are raising alarm over OROP, if fails prudence why no attention is seen being paid to tons of money going down the drain through subsidies, food security, MNRGA and so on. An amount of Rs 2.27 lakh crore ($37 billion) has been budgeted by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley for major subsidies like food, petroleum and fertilizers for the current fiscal. In his address on August 15 this year, the Prime Minister said that as a consequence of direct credit of gas subsidy adopted last year, as much as Rs 15,000 crore was saved in the first year itself. There is enormous scope to save and utilise the enormous funds being swindled from populist schemes by streamlining the distribution and accounting.
A CAG sample survey report published in July 2012 stated that only 3.2 per cent of the target households under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) have benefited from the scheme. This means that 96.8 per cent of the corpus spent on this most ambitious social sector scheme launched in Independent India’s history, might be going down the drain. Since the 1980s when Rajiv Gandhi said that of every rupee spent in welfare projects by the government only 15 paise reached the beneficiaries. Subsequent studies have shown that the average utilisation figure may be still lower at around 6 per cent only. The finance minister has enhanced budgetary allocation for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) to Rs 34,699 crore from Rs 34,000 crore last year despite government’s awareness of funds going astray. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had eloquently derided it in the Parliament saying, “MNREGA is a living epitome of your (the Congress’s) failures. After 60 years, the people of this country are being compelled to dig ditches.”
In the light of the above facts, it would be more appropriate for the Finance Minister to mobilise an effective mechanism to throttle corruption and rake in surplus money from these corruption zones rather than squeeze and starve India’s military and our war heroes who gave their life’s best in fighting and dying for the nation. As if answering the Finance Minister’s SOS call and concern over OROP, RBI Board of Directors has approved transfer of a surplus of Rs 65,896 for the current year. Although even full implementation of OROP will not cost more than Rs 9,000 crore, there is enough for the Finance Minister to mobilise tens of thousands of crore. And I have not yet talked of the progress made on black money!
Long ago, Chanakya had advised Chandragupta Maurya, “while the citizenry of the State contributes to see that the State prospers and flourishes, the soldier guarantees it continues to exist as a State. To this man, O Rajadhiraja, you owe a debt. Please, therefore, see to it, on your own, that the soldier gets his dues regularly in every form and respect, be they his needs or his wants for he is not likely to ask for them himself.”Kautilya, known also as Chanakya, gave his king this blunt warning: “The day the soldier has to demand his dues will be a sad day for Magadha, for then, on that day, you will have lost all moral sanction to be king.”
By Karan Kharb
(The author is a retired Army officer.)