Friday, January 2, 2015

My Take: For Armed Forces Veterans, NDA Seems to be Hardly Different from UPA. Course Correction Needed, Quickly at that

At 2.25 pm on Thursday afternoon, an email from the defence ministry’s public relations office made its way to my inbox. It was to announce the ministry’s initiative on the occasion of the Prime Minister-driven Good Governance Day. While I expected the ministry official to go through the usual drill, it was the headline of the mail that caught my attention: "Parrikar Asks MoD Officials to Evolve A Policy for Reducing Court Cases on Pensions".

This was not something any defence minister had ever said, that too in public. Manohar Parrikar has also promised something concrete in the upcoming Budget.

“It was about time. In fact, we were expecting this since a long time,” said Aishwarya Bhati, Supreme Court advocate, who has assisted many veterans. She added, “The words of the Chief Justice of India in a recent case against the ministry’s appeal were so strong that it would put anyone to shame.” She was referring to the December 10 hearing when the apex court disposed the defence ministry’s 800-odd appeals in cases pertaining to disability pensions of former soldiers.   

While the ministry tried to display its genteel face on an earmarked day, not many were willing to take it on face value. It is surprising to see this rapid loss of credibility for a government which claimed it was sensitive to the men in uniform.

To put things into perspective, let us step back to the days before the general elections earlier this year.

On one side was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) which, despite being in power for two full terms, did nothing for welfare of ex-servicemen. On the other was Narendra Modi, who kicked off his campaign with a rally at Rewari on September 15, 2013 with a demand for a "white paper" on One Rank One Pension (OROP). The armed forces personnel were livid with the "meek" Congress government. It was a charged vote bank which just could not be missed. Back then it was hardly surprising to see group emails from armed forces forums signed off with a line like "DO NOT VOTE FOR UPA IN THE NEXT ELECTIONS. THEY FAILED TO LOOK AFTER THE INTERESTS OF EX-SERVICEMEN".

In its final tryst with the Budget (vote on account) UPA accepted the principle of One Rank One Pension and set aside Rs 500 crore. Present finance minister Arun Jaitley added Rs 500 crore to it. However, a government notification implementing the provision is yet to materialise.

High hopes lie belied.

In response, the ex-servicemen community in October this year announced a protest rally in Nagpur on the eve of the Maharashtra Assembly elections. They announced yet another protest on December 3, which was subsequently called off after the intervention of Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrashekar. Now, a "Maha Rally" has been planned on February 1, 2015 at Jantar Mantar.

Over the years that one has covered this subject, one has come across different kinds of stories: widows and relatives of our soldiers being mistreated, men and officers being forced to fight unending battles in courts, soldiers ending up disabled because of botched up medical treatment and nothing being done in the form of redressal. As luck would have it, the Armed Forces Tribunal once even fined the secretary of Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare for denying relief to a retired air force officer!

A common thread through it all remains the sheer refusal of the defence ministry to ever publicly explain itself. No bureaucrat wants to turn up on TV debates on the subject. I once asked a defence secretary why he was not responding to my faxes and calls for an informal appointment to discuss issues concerning the ministry, including welfare. He simply said it was his policy to not meet anyone. Why is it that the defence ministry never thinks it is important to respond when asked on a subject as emotive as the welfare of ex-servicemen? Why does it not upset the ministry that it has a poor image when it comes to its treatment of its men in uniform?

Major (R) Navdeep Singh, an advocate in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, has rectified many of the wrongs done to the military personnel. According to him, “This government had a real opportunity to reveal its genuine intent for all these months but it ceded space to the Supreme Court, which came to our rescue on December 10.” He added, “This ministry (defence) is the only organisation which has close to 90 per cent of its appeals in the apex court against its own soldiers.”

Can we blame the people who say that it is the bureaucracy which is the stumbling block? It is not my case that the bureaucracy is without merit. But it is important to engage. Let the people know.  

I will never forget the day when a serving Brigadier shocked me by saying that he yelled at his son because he told him he wanted to follow in his footsteps and join the Army. This is what the system has brought things to.

Will even one bureaucrat respond, at least now?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of DailyO.in or the India Today Group. The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.

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