Saturday, October 20, 2012

Rift Within The Defence Establishment

by Maj-General Pushpendra Singh

Any nation which does not honour its heroes will not long endure – Abraham Lincoln
Following Government’s misleading announcement ‘awarding’ one-rank-one-pension (OROP), public and social media were flooded with the furious response of Ex-servicemen’s’ (ESM) organisations dubbing it a ‘deceitful stab-in-the-back’. TV channels spotlighted the serious distrust between MoD bureaucrats and the uniformed services. For a nation with two inimical, nuclearised neighbours; such a rift imperils national security and urgent remedial action becomes imperative.

Distrust stems from three principal factors: undermining Services’ pay and allowances; irresponsible delays in modernisation, oblivious of continually enhancing threat levels and persisting shortages in critical equipment and munitions. It originated with Babustan’s refusal to allow Services’ representation in the 3rd Pay Commission (PC) (the first applicable to Armed Forces) insisting that “requirement of discipline in the armed forces does not permit them representation!”  Could a more phoney plea have been proffered – and accepted? Consequently, the Services lost out on the pay-parities existing hitherto  as also on ‘Military Pensions’  - a rank-based structure with an edge over civilian pensions which compensated for early retirements and restricted promotions. Still, grievances were discussed discreetly. Another self-seeking decision with far-reaching consequences was taken by bureaucrats to exclude all past pensioners – civilians too - from pension upgrades so as to maximise the gains to those in service within the available financial package. Thus the stage for the OROP-demand was set.

Precedent having been established, no Services’ representation was allowed in ensuing PCs. However, in 1986 PN Singhal, Chairman 4PC – to his credit - accepted that the Services give a detailed presentation of their special operating environments and service terms and conditions. This convinced him to restore a compensating edge by creating a single pay band from Major to Brigadier with added ‘rank pay’ to cater for the Forces’ pyramidical promotion structure. It is here that Babustan’s deceitful deduction of rank pay while ‘fixing the pay in the pay-band’ led ultimately to the distrust manifesting. In 1987 Capt Dhanapalan tried to point out this subterfuge to Gen Sundarji, but his point was dismissed. Back then, no one believed that Babustan could stoop so low as to actually cheat the Services merely to nullify the slight edge conferred by 4PC. Only when Dhanapalan won the case in Supreme Court in 1995 did the Forces wake up to this sad reality. But Ministry of Defence (MoD) was not finished yet. They denied the award to the thousands of similarly affected officers. Even when in 2010, a division bench of the Supreme Court upheld the ESMs’ case; MoD fought a vicious rear-guard action, sought a recall order, submitted false affidavits and prevailed on the Solicitor-General to postpone the day of reckoning by missing hearings for over two years. MoD even tried to arm-twist the service chiefs into backing its case against their own officers!

Next, even the Forces’ case to 6PC was filtered through MoD babustan! Consequently, the award and subsequent mishandling led to a very public and damaging spat. Despite this, Forces were denied representation in the bureaucrats’ committee to ‘resolve’ the anomalies, which succeeded only in exacerbating the problem, just like the current committee under the Cabinet Secretary has done. This, despite ESM organisations writing to the PM that the omission would lead to perpetrating injustice. The so-called OROP concession has merely rectified another subterfuge when pension of pre-2006 pensioners was fixed at the “minimum of pay-band” instead of “minimum of pay in the pay-band”. Contrary to popular belief, the deprivation in pensions is the sharpest at the lowest level of Sepoy and has been ‘bridged’ to the extent of only 10% - and that too prospectively; thus swallowing seven years’ dues of a 10-year span. Hopefully, the huge anomalies in serving personnel’s emoluments would soon be transparently resolved.

3PC Chairman Raghubir Dayal, had also laid down the guiding principle for adequacy of Government emoluments: “...whether the service is attractive and it retains the people it needs.” By this criterion, the decades’ old shortfall of 30% officers is crying out for meaningful enhancement of Forces’ pay and perks. However, MoD remains blissfully oblivious of its dangerous portends for officer-jawan relationships and combat efficacy at the cutting edge. All nations honour and reward the sacrifice of its soldiers – our Government deprives them of their dues.

Coming to equipment issues, a great uproar was orchestrated when General VK Singh’s secret letter to the PM was leaked. Rumours were circulated that the Chief’s office had ‘done the dirty’ till his counter-charge that the culprits should be charged with high-treason. The public now believes that MoD was behind the leak - and never mind its impact on national security. Predictably, accountability has not been fixed. Unfortunately, he was not the lone Chief to write such a letter. The PM interacts atleast bi-annually with the Forces during the Commanders’ conferences when such issues are regularly aired. In addition, the RM is briefed frequently. Despite all such efforts, critical gaps in defence capability continue to accumulate dangerously, compelling service chiefs to invite the attention of the Head of Government. However, the leak spotlighted the critical shortages afflicting the Army, triggering a flurry of activity till media-glare lasted. The current 5-year Defence Perspective plan was promptly approved - the only such plan to have been approved in a quarter-century! During that period defence modernisation had remained in limbo.

Consequently, major acquisition proposals have typically been pending for 25-30 years. The shortages are huge and worrisome: Airforce squadron strength is only two-thirds of its sanctioned requirement and will sink further before the Rafael inductions begin. The Navy is still to reach the fleet-size sanctioned 25 years ago while the PLA Navy has made rapid strides. Critical shortages in the Army are already public knowledge courtesy ‘leaks’ and need no reiteration. The Forces can only wring their hands in frustration at Babustan’s procrastinations in the face of worsening force correlations.

As for procurement of in-service equipments, the BEML-Tatra case has highlighted how Defence PSUs and Ordnance factories routinely rake off thousands of crores from meagre defence budgets through Shylockian overpricing. No wonder shortfalls in all key items keep accumulating year on year. As recently as Kargil, 1999 the Chief had to state, ‘we will fight with what we have!’ We did, but lost far too many valuable young lives, too many weeping widows and grieving mothers – but Babustan remains unmoved and continues to thwart all attempts at reform, particularly genuine integration of the Forces into the Ministry.

It is time for the RM to step in if he is at all concerned about his legacy. The chasm between Babustan and the Services will be bridged only by true integration of the Service HQs and MoD, as also transparency and fair-play in emoluments for all ranks.

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