Saturday, August 29, 2015
Decision delayed is defence denied
OPINION in The Hindu on OROP dated 28 Aug 2015.
Unbiased and forceful.
If armed forces veterans feel let down, it is because the delivery on the OROP promise has been in inverse proportion to the articulation of the promise itself
Each day the government delays the implementation of the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme, a demand that is 42 years old, it risks playing with fire. It is safe to assume that the serving service Chiefs have conveyed as much to the government. The public manifestation of the rapidly spreading and quickly deepening levels of disenchantment came when the daughter of Gen. V.K. Singh, former Army Chief of Staff and a serving Minister of State, sat with the Jantar Mantar agitators in an open show of support. Mrinalini Singh’s husband is a serving Army officer. This is a categorical indication that both Gen. Singh and Col. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, another Minister, would no doubt have pointed out to the government the consequences of not being able to deliver on a promise already made several times over.
Roughly 60,000 people retire from the armed forces every year. Some retire before they are 35, and as many as 87 per cent of servicemen retire between the ages of 34 and 48. Soldiers, sailors, airmen at the lowest level are the hardest hit because after a near nomadic life in the armed forces, they most likely do not own too many assets, a home nor have an alternative income stream. They have no clear prospect of a second lease of working life either.
Soldiers retire early because they need to be fighting fit to be in the forces and hence, the armed forces need young blood. The retirement policy affects an estimated 25 lakh ex-servicemen. Counted along with their dependents, the number swells to roughly three times that or 70 lakh people.
Also, a large section of the armed forces has family members who are either still serving or have retired from the forces. In normal conversations, the situation is bound to occupy their mindspace. Those in service know that sooner or later, they will become veterans and inherit the same situation their fathers did before them, an inheritance of loss.
The problem has been exacerbated because of the way in which the then BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, appropriated and espoused the cause at the 2014 hustings and his subsequent repeated assurance, both on the floor of Parliament and elsewhere, that OROP was a settled matter and the solution had his imprimatur. Consider also Mr. Modi’s unparalleled political heft in the Lok Sabha and the fact that the Supreme Court has, as long ago as December 1982, underlined the need for OROP. If the agitators feel let down, it is because the delivery of the promise has so far been in inverse proportion to the articulation of the promise itself.
As many as ten retired service Chiefs have deliberately used the word ‘imbroglio’, a word of Italian origin that has elements of confusion, entanglement, bitterness, and complication all rolled into one. It accounts for the growing feeling that in the real OROP narrative, Narendra Modi, whom none other than the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Ashok Singhal acknowledged as BJP’s Iron Man, is helpless. His inability to deliver stems from his being a victim of either intra-party politics or from him having been ensnared in a web made by intransigent bureaucrats.
The discourse in New Delhi circles suggests that a section of the bureaucracy wants to dovetail the OROP with the Seventh Pay Commission. This would effectively scupper the plan because it would postpone the resolution and rework the rationale and framework of the OROP as well. Lt. Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain, who retired as Military Secretary of the Army, writes in the July issue of Fauji India that the “bureaucracy is living up to its promise to complicate the issue to such an extent that it [OROP] is once again shelved without decision.”
The procrastination has escalated the situation to a standoff between the veterans and the government. Mr. Modi’s inability to act quickly and effectively has allowed other political parties space where none need have been conceded. The issue is now open to political hijack. There has been a steady stream of contradictory noises emanating from the government, most notably from the Finance Ministry, asking ex-servicemen to “lower expectations”.
The implication is that the government is having trouble coming up with the money. It has not gone unnoticed among the veterans that Mr. Modi, the politician, had no difficultly promising Rs. 1.25 lakh crore for Bihar in what amounts, scandalously, to pre-election sops. For OROP, the figure being talked about is roughly Rs. 8,300 crore, a fraction of the Bihar pledge.
Soldiers cannot go on strike like bank employees do, but patience now seems in short supply. Since June, the veterans have resorted to black armband protests, bike rallies, candle-light vigils, petitions, the return of service medals, and hunger strikes in an attempt to force the government to focus on the implications. They know more than others that all it requires is a small spark to set off a blaze. If something has been building up for a long time and is looking for release, even something as inconsequential as a slap can have an enormous ripple effect.
We need to remember the mutiny witnessed after Operation Blue Star. Given that the veterans are already on hunger-strike and writing petitions in blood, all it needs is a momentary provocation to set off that dreaded spark.
Soldiers cannot go on strike like bank employees do,
but patience now seems in short supply