Thursday, September 19, 2013
A soldier’s worth
By Purnima S. Tripathi
The government continues to deny both serving and retired soldiers their rightful pay and perks and has quietly buried a Fifth Pay Commission study which found that they had a much lower life expectancy than their civilian counterparts. By PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI in New Delhi.
EVEN as the country watched soldiers of the Indian Army putting their lives on the line during the arduous rescue operations in flood-hit Uttarakhand in June, a couple of elderly defence veterans were making the rounds of the Army Headquarters and the offices of the Defence Ministry in New Delhi, hoping to meet either the Defence Minister or the Chief of the Army Staff. They hoped to draw the attention of the authorities to the fact that the pay and perks of serving soldiers (all ranks, including officers and sepoys) and the post-retirement benefits of ex-servicemen were pitiable.
The two men were Maj Gen (retd) Satbir Singh, acting chairman of the Indian Ex Servicemen Movement (IESM), and Maj Gen (retd) Surjit Singh. They had a committee report to back their claim that soldiers were given a raw deal. The committee, headed by Maj Gen Surjit Singh, was formed by the Army’s Pay Commission cell to deduce the life expectancy of soldiers for finalising their pay, perks and age of superannuation for the Fifth Central Pay Commission. The committee’s report was prepared in consultation with the Institute of Applied Manpower Research (IAMR). The report, which was confidential, never got acted upon despite the then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s assurance that it would be given due consideration. While the Fifth Pay Commission was benevolent to Central government employees, defence personnel got a raw deal. This led to a lot of heartburning among defence personnel. Internally, they continued to try and push the government to remedy the situation, but it proved futile. “Now we have decided to make this report public and highlight the unfair treatment meted out to soldiers by successive governments,” said Satbir Singh.
The findings of the report, titled “A critique of the military pension”, are indeed startling. Taking a big enough sample size of various categories of veterans from pension disbursing banks, zila sainik boards and EME records, the Army cell came to the conclusion that the life expectancy was 72.5 years for officers, 67 for junior commissioned officers (JCOs) and between 59.6 and 64 years for other ranks. The study found that among personnel of other ranks, soldiers possessing saleable skills tended to live longer. The overall conclusion was that on an average a soldier lived only 15 to 20 years after retirement, irrespective of his age at the time of retirement
In contrast, the IAMR study found that the life expectancy of civil servants was 77 years and that of Railway employees was 78 years. In view of these findings, the Fifth Central Pay Commission recommended an increase in the age of superannuation for Central government civil servants from 58 to 60 years. A number of States such as West Bengal, Meghalaya and Mizoram, and the Union Territory of Puducherry followed suit and raised the age of superannuation for their civil servants. The Commission gave the personnel of the central police organisations three years’ additional service, the benefits for members of the armed forces were left to be decided by the Central government.
“In a society where civilian authority is supreme, we were left with no choice but to raise the issue at the right forums internally and kept hoping that the government would do something about it. But, unfortunately, nothing happened. Once the matter was raised in the Rajya Sabha and the then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee told the House that he would look into it, but many years have since passed and nothing has been done, which is a matter of great concern for all of us,” said Surjit Singh, who claimed that since retirement he had now found his “freedom of speech back” and that he intended to make full use of it to get the soldiers their due.
The reasons for the reduced life expectancy of soldiers are many. The first and foremost is the paltry pension they receive. “Before retirement the soldier is fed on a 4,000 calorie per diem diet… post-retirement there is sudden drop in the consumption pattern of the ex-servicemen… that has a telling effect on their health and well-being,” the study says. Besides, even though the soldiers retire at a young age when they are still physically fit, lack of re-employment opportunities and their singular lack of investment acumen add to their woes.
The study says the re-employment scenario for soldiers is dismal, to say the least. “The total number of soldiers of combat category who are absorbed in government service is less than two per cent of retirees and of this no more than 10 per cent succeed in their private ventures. Many lose their lifetime savings and end up as disillusioned men driven to extreme poverty,” the study says, pointing out that “what our defence veterans know about investment can be written on a postage stamp.”
Surjit Singh says that his personal interactions with veterans have shown that most of them spend their entire savings on the marriages of their kin, renovation of their houses, and so on, and that after a few years they are left with nothing.
The study further points out that what makes it worse for soldiers is that they lack the skills needed to survive in a civilian workforce and end up as easy prey for the business world. “Retiring a man at the age of forty is a bit like throwing a passenger overboard midstream. The pension is like a life jacket which keeps him afloat. If a kindly coxswain picks him up, good luck, or else he battles with the water for as long as he can and then goes down with the tide,” the study notes. Here it may be mentioned that in keeping with the mantra of a “lean and mean force” Army personnel retire pretty early. While the officers retire between 54 and 58 years of age on an average depending on the rank, sepoys retire at 37-40 years, a time when their personal obligations are at their peak. “Even if one is lucky to get a job post-retirement, holding on to it with grace and dignity is not so easy,” said Surjit Singh, adding that the soldier does not know the tricks of the trade in the civilian world and in the dog-eat-dog world of competition he is mostly forced to quit.
The IESM, which claims the allegiance of 150 ex-servicemen organisations from across the country, has taken up the issue with the Defence Minister and the three services chiefs. Its acting chairman Satbir Singh said he had written a letter to them on July 26 but had got no reply. “May we request you to trace out the file which may be catching dust in MoD or Army HQ and Review the management of Defence Personnel in more humane and pragmatic manner? Initiate measures to ensure that the soldiers are given their due status, respect, pay and allowance, pensions and family pensions and measures are put in place where soldiers can live in dignity and respect in our democracy,” he wrote in the letter.
What adds to the soldiers’ heartburning is the fact that from the Fourth Pay Commission onwards they have been denied even their rightful dues by the government on some pretext or the other. The Fourth Pay Commission gave an additional rank pay to defence personnel. This was not paid to them and the matter is now pending with the Supreme Court, which ordered the Central government to pay the rank pay to all defence personnel with effect from January 1, 1986. The government has cited lack of resources and is simply dragging on the case. The demand for “one rank one pension” has also been pending with the government for many years. Explaining the government’s tendency to ignore even the just demands of the forces, former Chief of the Army Staff Gen V.K. Singh told Frontline that bureaucrats kept the forces subordinated at all times. “There is this irrational fear that if they keep the forces happy and satisfied, they will start dominating,” he said. He should know, for he had taken government to court on the controversy surrounding his age and learnt a bitter lesson
Gen V.K. Singh said he tried to improve matters when he was the Army chief, but more often than not he was frustrated by the bureaucracy. “To give you an example, I tried harmonising the ration of officers and jawans and it took me eight months to do that.” Harmonising meant reducing the gap between what a jawan got and what an officer got as ration. For example, he found to his utter shock that while officers were given two eggs a day, jawans got none and it took him eight months to correct this. Citing another example, he said the uniforms worn by jawans, which were prepared by the ordnance factories, were ill-fitting. So he tried to bring in a system where the jawans would get the material and would get them stitched themselves. The bureaucracy did not allow it. “Similarly, our combat soldiers need knee-length boots, but they wear ankle-length boots. I tried changing that, and gave up,” he said.
According to him, the bureaucracy has such a stranglehold over the system that the political leadership gets confused about issues. “The bureaucracy creates such a smoke screen around issues that the political leadership fails to see things for themselves and there lies the crux of the problem,” he said. He lamented that when this was the attitude of the bureaucracy over even trivial issues, there was no point in expecting them to correct substantial ones like those of pay and pension. He regretted that even though he had tried his best to do a few good things for the soldiers, he had failed. “At one point it just came to the frustrating situation that whatever I said was being seen with suspicion,” he said, reminiscing about the days when there seemed to be a conspiracy in the air about everything that he said or did.
But, unfortunately, in this tug of war between the civilian establishment and the military leadership, soldiers become the casualty. The IESM, which is planning a string of initiatives to draw the government’s attention to soldiers’ problems, is intent on taking up the issue of life expectancy to its logical conclusion. “The figures cited in the study are of 2005 vintage, the environment in 2012-13 has vitiated further. Over 1,053 suicides by serving soldiers in the last few years are indicative of high stress levels and low satisfaction levels. Recent cases of fragging and indiscipline are a cause of concern. This indifference of the Defence Ministry is adversely affecting not only the veterans but also future veterans,” says Maj Gen Satbir Singh.
Attempts by Frontline to get the Army’s or the Defence Ministry’s reaction to these issues proved futile as the officials concerned remained unavailable.