According to media reports of February 20, 2019, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has decided to withdraw its appeals made before the Supreme Court against grant of disability benefits to soldiers by various courts and tribunals. The report quoting unnamed ‘sources’, confirms that instructions have already been issued not only to withdraw the pending appeals filed by aggrieved litigants in the apex court on a “case-to-case basis”.
The news report further goes on to say that this development is significant not only for being an emotional issue, but also because the apex court as well as various high courts have expressed extreme anguish in the past over the MoD’s apparent inclination to challenge verdicts passed in favour of disabled soldiers by military tribunals or high courts. Anguished over the indiscriminate appeals filed by MoD against disabled soldiers, the courts had even suggested the Centre must ‘change its bureaucratic psyche”.
It is also reported that the above development is an outcome of a meeting between Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with a delegation led by Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar and two former members of MoD’s committee of experts – Major DP Singh who was disabled in Kargil War and Major Navdeep Singh who is former Territorial Army officer and practicing lawyer of the Punjab & Haryana High Court.
The committee of experts mentioned was appointed by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. This committee submitted its report to the MoD in 2015, titled ‘RAKSHA MANTRI’S COMMITTEE OF EXPERTS REVIEW OF SERVICE AND PENSION MATTERS INCLUDING POTENTIAL DISPUTES, MINIMIZING LITIGATION AND STRENGTHENING INSTITUTIONAL MECHANISMS RELATED TO REDRESSAL OF GRIEVANCES 2015. The members of this committee were veteran officers Lt Gen Mukesh Sabharwal, Lt Gen Richard Khare, Maj Gen T Parshad, Maj Navdeep Singh, Advocate, and Major DP Sungj, with R Pandyan as Member Secretary.
According to Major Navdeep Singh, “This provides closure to a very emotive issue wherein though the financial implications were minimal still the grim reality of a nation fighting its own disabled veterans was heartbreaking since it is well known and universally recognized how stress and strain of military service, a regimented lifestyle away from the family and inability to effectively cater to domestic commitments result in aggravation of existing physical and mental conditions of the women & men in uniform”.
So far so good for the step taken by MoD but while instructions have reportedly been issued to withdraw such litigation, the catch is that the withdrawing of litigation will be on “case-to-case”. Given the track record of the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (DESW), it is quite possible one odd case may be withdrawn, with due propaganda, or the issue could be blacked out in media in the future. How soon and in what measure the implementation happens will remain the question.
Besides, is this a onetime order? It is also on record that the MoD on occasions has deliberately not implemented decisions given by the Supreme Court in favour of soldiers. Notice the media report, stating: “Anguished over the indiscriminate appeals filed by MoD against disabled soldiers, the courts had even suggested the Centre must change its bureaucratic psyche”.
Propaganda by successive India governments has conveniently deflect all ills, including their inefficiency, to the bureaucracy. This may be acceptable in the first one or two years of their rule. But inability to handle bureaucrats beyond that implies latter have keys to the cupboard holding skeletons of politicians, or latter are in synch with bureaucrats.
On assuming appointment of defence minister on September 3, 2017, Nirmala Sitharaman announced she had two priority areas; one, Make in India, and; two, welfare of soldiers and their families. But what she done towards welfare of soldiers and their families aside for restoring educational stipend of wards of Veer Naris, but that after the Punjab Chief Minister announced that if MoD couldn’t muster the measly sum of Rs 4 cr for the purpose, he would pay for the same. Despite reply to an RTI in 2017, that MoD had spent Rs 47 cr in fighting cases against pension of widows and pensions, why did the government not act? Not only the issue of fighting against pension of disabled and widows is unethical, it indicates putrid minds deriving sadistic pleasure.
What is the rationale in employing a battery of lawyers, paying them individually Rs 2 lakh from defence funds, that too without a single case won by the government to-date? What an irony that government hesitates to give ‘promised’ Rs 4 cr for educating wards of ‘Veer Naris’ but spends Rs 48 cr for denying pension to disabled and widows.
The statement by the Army Chief that some individuals were misusing ‘disability’ for obtaining disability pension perhaps was to deflect from the brickbats the government was getting on the issue of litigation against disabled. Those misusing it must be acted against including those who certified the disability. But on this pretext others should not be taken to court for years on end. If someone does anything wrong, the concerned individual is punished, not all across the board. Incidentally, the Raksha Mantris Experts Committee Report 2015, had made multiple recommendation which are yet to be acted upon.
One of these related to “lack of judicial review from orders of the Armed Forces Tribunal and making justice unreachable for defence personnel and their families’, but ironically government has been trying to even dilute the Armed Forces Tribunal, including keeping them deliberately grossly under-posted.
There are posts in social media that the practice of MoD taking widows and disabled to court for their pensions is legacy of the Congress. That is understandable though NDA I and other governments too have ruled the country. But, what about the present government that is completing five years shortly amidst claims they are different from Congress? If welfare of soldiers and families is priority one for Sitharaman since September 2017, why was this step not taken earlier? The reasons can only be two: one, attract soldier votes and somewhat mitigate the neglect of soldiers over the five years, and; two, the Pulwama terror attack has upset earlier calculations of voting trends.
Just last year Sitharaman informed Parliament that MoD will NOT withdraw litigation cases against widows and disabled. Even now the MoD decision is to withdraw litigation cases against the disabled only, which may or may not be a red herring amidst election fever. But there is no mention of widows at all – wonder if that is being saved as ‘largesse’ to be granted before another election sometime in the future.
Apparently, the decision is hardly change of heart by the government which has tried its best to put the Armed Forces below police forces, starving them with funds for equipping and modernization. Not granting full OROP as approved by two Parliaments is another issue, even as the excuse given that it will not be considered till veterans agitating at Jantar Mantar close shop (mirrored by the Army Chief also on some occasions) is the most idiotic defence.
The veteran agitation has completed over 1400 days at Jantar Mantar to the joy of the government and the bureaucracy that holds them ransom (with key to the skeletons), but the deffence minister and the finance minister should realize that 60,000 personnel retire from the Army alone annually and OROP concerns 99% individuals who are not officers. Why punish all Armed Forces; when to soldiers raise in pension of whatever amount matters a great deal
Is there no shame in MoD telling Parliament they have appointed yet another committee to look into recommendations of the one-man Reddy Commission on OROP appointed by the same government? Is MoD busy playing marbles that they cannot deal with the Reddy Commission Report, or is it too uncomfortable? It may also be recalled that while the OTIP (one time increase in pension) was granted in 2014 instead of OROP, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had called the required annul revision it too complicated, even though it was and is being done for civilian defence employees and other government services; perhaps Jaitley’s calculator is supplied from across the border which doesn’t cater for the military. But government did at that time say that the revision would be every five year only, which falls in July 1, 2019. But then the new government would be busy on so many issues.
As to the NFU granted to all government services less Armed Forces, who knows, if Supreme Court rules in favour of Armed Forces, whether it will be implemented and in what form? The Army Chief has already hinted if NFU is coming but will not be given to all. Why should everyone in Army get it like other government services; after all we are a different service and we always get ‘free hand in times of crisis – don’t we?