Sunday, January 23, 2011

Is litigation a matter of worry ?

The following appeared on Page 40 of the ‘Salute’ magazine, January 2011. (Copyright : Salute to the Indian Soldier)
Litigation and Armed Forces : A matter of worry ?
Navdeep Singh
Increase in litigation in the forces, is it worrisome? Is it that the system is being unfair to its personnel?
No, not at all. That a greater number of serving and retired personnel are resorting to legal recourse resulting in judicial intervention is a sign of a healthy democracy where the right to Constitutional remedies is guaranteed to every citizen.
Quantitatively the litigation was bound to increase with the inception of country-wide Benches of the Armed Forces Tribunal. A surge in the number of cases was expected because of several reasons, first being that the feeling itself of the availability of an exclusive body to deal with grievances of present and former service-members was encouragement enough for those to take legal recourse who felt that they had been treated unfairly. Secondly, there was an inherent reluctance, and rightly so, of taking some of the seemingly trivial matters such as minor disputes in pay, allowances and grants, to High Courts, a thing of the past now since the Tribunal now not only has the expertise but also the power to go into the minutiae of such aspects. And thirdly, there was an innate phobia, though unfounded, with respect to the complexity and formality of procedure followed in High Courts which no longer remains true since the procedures followed in Tribunals are much more ‘user-friendly’ if I could use the phrase.
But there is a flip side. And that brings me to the qualitative aspect. The coming into force of the Armed Forces Tribunal Act should not mean that the internal grievances redressal mechanism is further weakened or that everything is put on the AFT by harbouring an attitude that if a person does not get justice, he shall get it from the Tribunal. In fact the in-house system should be so strong that only a minority of grievances reach litigation stage. In certain arenas some of the cases are such which should never have reached litigation stage. Disability pension is one such area where proper application of procedures and regulations by medical boards, record offices and CDA would help in minimising disputes on the subject since the Tribunals in this matter are in fact doing what should have been the duty of the ibid authorities. Also pensionary litigation in the defence services is the highest in the country compared to all other central government organisations and most of it is avoidable. Primary reason being that the Department of Pension and Pensioners’ Welfare under the Personnel Ministry on the civil side is one of the most proactive and welfare oriented departments of the Government while just the contrary can be said about the Pension wing of the Ministry of Defence. While the former takes democratic decisions by taking into account a well established consultative process with bodies of pensioners, the latter is a one-man show with a single officer imposing his whims on millions of defence pensioners and their families in a highly undemocratic fashion. While the former places every single letter issued by it on the official website the same day, the latter does not believe in even letting pensioners know of their entitlements with affected people perpetually groping in the dark. Senior officers of the Ministry of Defence and the Services Headquarters unfortunately do not have the expertise of gauging what is right and what is wrong, what is beneficial and what is detrimental. What to talk of poor pensioners, in matters of pension, the defence ministry is now notoriously (in)famous for even misleading Courts by quoting outdated and non-existent rules and regulations, a tendency that has now been deprecated on record by Courts umpteen number of times.
Tersely put, it is not the quantity of cases reaching judicial fora that is worrisome, but the quality. What needs to be curbed is the plethora of forced litigation thrust upon poor veterans simply because that accountant in Allahabad failed to touch the calculator for months together or the clerk in the Records Office refused to open the rule book and comprehend simple rudimentary English.

by Maj Navdeep Singh

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