I may be out of step with the times, but I am convinced that what has been happening at Jantar Mantar in Delhi over the last two months exemplifies neither discipline nor loyalty nor patriotism, notwithstanding the vaunted claims by the Ex-servicemen League( ESM). There is a regular torrent of abuse (of the government, the civil services and politicians) and vilification flowing from senior (retired) defense officers, and they have not spared even their Supreme Commander, the President of India – just yesterday he was sent a letter by the ESM holding him responsible for “any damage or mishap” that may occur to the hunger strikers, and accusing him that “under your rule a soldier’s life is at stake….”. So much for devotion to the country.
There is more. The tone and tenor of their statements and that of some retired Chiefs who, having compromised themselves earlier by quietly accepting OROP for themselves and dumping their ” boys”, really have no moral right to protest now, are becoming noticeably menacing and threatening. One day we are warned that the ESM is in touch with serving soldiers and heaven help the country if disaffection spreads to the armed forces. The next day we are told that helping the civil administration in case of natural disasters is not the army’s job, and what will the government do if this assistance is denied? A retired Chief cautions the government on television that these guys are not trade unionists but soldiers, that they know how to fight and will not back down. To me this is coming uncomfortably close to incitement and downright blackmail.
And then there is the final irony – a group of ex-soldiers who claim to be totally apolitical now indicating that they could jump into the Bihar election to muster support for their cause ! Make up your minds, gentlemen – are you ex-soldiers or an aspiring political outfit, which is what you are increasingly looking like with your rebellious statements and open defiance of the government?
As I’ve categorically stated earlier (THE BITTER TRUTH ABOUT OROP) there is a strong case made out for compensating soldiers for their early retirement but this is limited to the jawans and ORs, not the officers. The former retire between the ages of 35 and 38 and constitute 85% of the total strength of the armed forces. The officers have it much better – every commissioned officer retires in the time scale of a Colonel at 54, and then has the option of 4 years of reemployment within the force itself. He effectively retires, therefore, at 58 (as against 60 for the civil services, not such a significant “discrimination” as the ESM is making it out to be), with the full notional benefit of 33 years service for computing his pension. Even these two years are the result of the doctrine of having a “young army” and not because of any conspiracy by the government to keep the army subjugated, as is being constantly made out by ESM. The sheer nature of their job demands a degree of physical fitness that declines with age. Take the converse – Doctors and Professors in higher medical and educational institutions retire at 65 because in their case the primary consideration is not physical fitness but intellectual ability and acquired expertise. Nobody – not even the IAS!- grudges them this because the rationale is reasonable. It is the same with the armed forces.
The ESM has been very economical with the truth when it talks about discrimination with the armed forces in the matter of pensions. It fails to mention, acknowledge or accept that the government has already provided them with a massive advantage over the civil services. Civil service officers who have joined service on 1.4.2004 and thereafter are no longer entitled to assured pensions from the government. They are now enrolled in the NPS (National Pension Scheme), a fund to which both the employee and the government contribute a fixed percentage of salary every month. The pension payable depends on the profits generated by the NPS fund. In other words, there is no longer an assured percentage of pension for civil employees. But the government has kept the armed forces out of the NPS – they continue to enjoy the benefit and security of assured pensions. Be honest to yourself at least, Generals, if not to the country.
Another myth that needs to be busted is that armed forces officers are denied the promotions that their civil counterparts are entitled to. I personally agree that the promotion bandwagon in the higher civil services has gone berserk and this self serving policy needs to be drastically pruned. But this does not render the ESM’s claims for a similar absurdity in their case legitimate. For the same reasons of operational effectiveness the army perforce has to have an acute pyramidal structure, which naturally puts limits on promotional avenues. This is an imperative of the service which all the members of the ESM were doubtless aware of when they joined NDA or IMA. Why try to smuggle this demand through the backdoor when you entered from the front?
The same logic applies to the constant outcry about hardship postings, non-family stations, casualties etc. It goes with the territory and the uniform, which is why the armed forces are respected. These conditions are not peculiar to the Indian army either but are part and parcel of all armies across the world. In fact, service conditions are much worse in the police and the CPMFs. The government has been making attempts to compensate for some of the harsher conditions by providing generous allowances, which the ESM is not factoring in in the discourse. It does not behove a fine and proud armed force like ours to constantly wail about these things. After all ours is not a conscripted armed force but a voluntary one, and if you can’t take the heat don’t enter the kitchen.
In fact, it is now clear that the officer cadre is riding piggy back on the jawan to extract the maximun benefits for themselves. It now appears that the jawans and ORs (including the NCOs and JCOs) have seen through this game: it was reported yesterday in the Hindustan Times that the ORs have now decided to float a separate body called the All-India Ex-servicemen (AIE).
This is what their coordinator Bir Bahadur Singh had to say: ” The OROP movement has been hijacked by the officers who normally have been given lots of advantages. It is our legitimate rights that have never been taken into consideration.”
This is a significant development, and the central government should take note of this, because it brings the spotlight exactly where it should have been focused all these days- on the jawan. It is precisely at this level that the healing touch and correction/rectification measures need to be applied (and not through OROP, which is a diversionary smoke screen). Not that the government has not made attempts to do so in the past. A little known fact is that till the Third Pay Commission a jawan served only for 5 years and was not entitled to any pension. (INDIA TODAY, August 17, 2015). It was only in 1973, on the recommendations of the TPC, that he was not only given a tenure of 15 years but also made entitled to pension. But much more needs to be done, because he still retires at 35.
The solution, as I’ve been maintaining, does not lie in the easy and financially disastrous OROP formula. A country which gives 50% pension to an individual for 50 years for having served for 15 years cannot but be both intellectually and financially bankrupt. The best solution to this vexed problem is already on the table before the government – lateral induction into the police and CPMFs. In fact this was suggested by the Sixth Pay Commission but the central government, no doubt under pressure from the police and CPMFs, chose to ignore it. Opposition from the latter is to be expected for a number of sordid reasons for which one does have the time here, but Mr. Modi has to override his bureaucracy and political colleagues and implement this recommendation of the SPC. It will at one stroke remove the just grievances of the ORs and jawans, improve exponentially the image and effectiveness of the police and CPMFs, eliminate the need for any OROP, prevent a similar agitation by the civilian employees, save the country thousands of crores and ensure we do not go the way of Greece.
It is time for the ESM to back down and enter into meaningful dialogue with the central government, show some flexibility, and cease putting themselves on a pedestal. They say they are not trade unionists but are behaving exactly like them. Stop this blackmail, for it is engendering indiscipline and tarnishing the image of the Indian soldier which we hold in high esteem. Discuss with the government the real issues that bedevil the jawan and do not try to feather your own nest by using him as a proxy. Don’t try to bankrupt a country you have sworn to protect.
As for Mr. Modi, we have been waiting for 16 months for him to show some real leadership. His time starts NOW.