Why government can't afford to alienate armed forces
New Delhi needs to integrate the nation’s armed forces with itself.
- Total Shares
After occupying media space for many months, the One Rank One Pension (OROP) issue appears to have run its course. Like sinusoidal curves, however, chronic problems do not just go away. They recur cyclically and often end up inflicting unacceptable pain. Also, it would be unrealistic to expect that tomorrow’s veterans are just detached observers of the OROP imbroglio only because today they are constrained from speaking up.
In all democracies, armed forces are an integral element of the government, but we are an exception. During the pre-independence era, India’s upcoming political leadership developed familiar ties with civil administrators. The latter did jail them, but segregated political prisoners from criminals and also extended personal courtesies. But Indian politicians had no interaction at all with the Army in Cantonments. armed forces are trained to stand erect, look their seniors in the eye and speak straight. After Independence, the signage of self assurance was taken by the political class as arrogance and before mutual understanding could develop, the discourse took a sharp turn.
For Government of India (GoI) to conduct its business, the Allocation of Business Rules (AOB) and Transaction of Business Rules (TOB) both of 1961 were issued by the President in exercise of powers conferred by Clause (3) of article 77 of the Constitution (Article). The First Schedule (Rule2) of the AOB does not even acknowledge existence of Army/Navy/Air Headquarters under Ministry of Defence. Its Second Schedule (Rule3) makes the Department of Defence responsible for “...defence of India and every part thereof...” and Para 11 of TOB assigns this responsibility to Defence Secretary (Def Sec).
The three armed forces and their headquarters are mentioned as “subjects” in the department of defence, thereby placing them under Defence Secretary, which conflicts directly with the legal authority to operate, govern and administer their respective forces vested in the chiefs through Army/Navy/Air Force Acts of Parliament (the Acts) and Statutory Regulations (Regs) drawn up there under. Since defending the nation, and preparing therefore, is operational activity warranting integral administrative and financial elements, Defence Secretary’s task is clearly undeliverable.
Further, such AOB/TOB assignation severely hampers the chiefs’ delivery of tasks assigned to them by the Act as came out clearly in the naval chief’s resignation episode in 2014. In administrative terms too the AOB/TOB arrangement is inconsistent with the relativity between the chiefs and Defence Secretary in that the former outrank the latter in the Warrant of Precedence as well as in pay grade. To compare, the department listed under ministry of railways is the Railway Board whose chairman is not a bureaucrat, but a professional railway service officer who is also designated an ex-officio principal secretary to GoI. Members of the Railway Board are designated ex-officio secretaries to GoI. Recommendations for similar integration of armed forces were set aside citing difficulties in amending AOB/TOB even though the AOB has been amended 299 times in fifty years - that is, an average of six times every year!
The inter se status, pay and pension of the same armed forces that, in 1971, had achieved the most spectacular victory anywhere since World War II, were delivered the unkindest cut by Third Pay Commission in 1973. That was the first pay commission, which did not have a military member; it removed both the military pay, which was a 15 per cent add on to the central government pay scales and military pension, which was 70 per cent of last pay drawn; and also did away with OROP, which had existed for the armed forces for 26 years since Independence.
Concurrently, the civilians’ pension was scaled up from 33 per cent to 50 per cent and applied to armed forces also; all in the name of uniformity within the GoI. A specific example will illustrate the totality of approach amd stratagem. Before 1973, lieutenant colonels/ equivalents (Lt Col) were in the same pay scale as deputy secretaries (DS). The Third Pay Commission stretched the DS pay scale to start less than, but end Rs 50 more than lieutenant colonels’, effectively making the former senior to the latter in terms of our bureaucratic norms.
When protested, the Defence Secretary dismissively recorded on file to effect "...on this fifty rupees differential rests the apple cart of administration..."
The issue indeed was much bigger, namely of repositioning brigadiers, who were till then equivalent to joint secretaries, below the latter, who could be equated with major generals.
The stature, pay and pension of the armed forces officers and men alike have all been relatively downscaled over time. The pay commissions go through presentations of the representatives of all affected parties directly except the armed forces, whose projections have to be routed through the MoD bureaucracy. Armed forces conditions of service, inter alia, prohibit them from forming an association unlike all other government servants. In the absence of a platform for collective bargaining, the armed forces personnel rely on their chiefs to protect their interests. Many chiefs protested the unfairness of it all to government of the day, each in his own way, but all very respectfully for fear of being misunderstood. And, they did not share with the subordinates their travails for, once again, fear of being misunderstood. So, now we have a number of honourable former chiefs who will probably be judged by posterity not very charitably for the net result that the armed forces still got progressively marginalised.
After a lot of political football had been played for 38 years with the armed forces pension issue, the present avatar of OROP was drawn up in 2011 by a committee of ten parliamentarians representing all major political parties, led by BJP MP Shri BS Koshyari. The proposal, since approved by two consecutive parliaments and upheld by the Supreme Court, was taken by the serving personnel and veterans as restoration of their "izzat". But the Raksha Mantri’s (RM) press conference of September 5, 2015 changed all that. Flanked by three chiefs and Defence Secretary, the visibility suggested that they had all concurred with the watered down OROP text read out by RM. Defence secretary may have known it, but the chiefs had no clue at that stage as evidenced by reference to VRS, which does not exist in services’ lexicon. Ironically, after taking army chiefs' help to reach out to the veterans, the serving rank and file watched in bewilderment their own government slight their chief by bypassing him. The OROP announcement has failed to satisfy any party, namely the veterans who rejected it outright, the government for all the embarrassment, the common man who respects the armed forces but is being misled to believe that veterans are hankering after the poor man’s money or the nation whose security cannot but be compromised through it all.
Now, OROP was also a very specific, unconditional poll promise made personally by the designated prime ministerial candidate before last general elections. Even though addressed to veterans, OROP actually was an offering to the serving personnel of armed forces since the Supreme Court has defined pension as deferred wages. It is a matter of honour for the government brought into office by an overwhelming mandate, to implement the poll promise made to the largest single constituency whose multi-hued but firmly intertwined fabric captures the glorious diversities of our nation. Tinkering with any element of OROP definition would tantamount to reneging on a solemn promise. Each one of the soldiers takes the Oath of Allegiance to the Constitution of India and to him the given word is the ultimate honour. He and his family uncomplainingly endure immense hardships and make unaccountable sacrifices just for him to keep his word. And, they expect his superiors to keep theirs.
In perilous times, the first human instinct is to shoot the messenger. But the state needs to rise above human limitations. Looking at it all de novo, firstly, GoI needs to integrate the nation’s armed forces with itself. The anomaly between AOB/TOB and the parliamentary enactments governing the three services needs to be removed through 300th amendment to AOB to designate the service headquarters as “departments” and not merely subjects or attached offices.
Likewise, service chiefs and future CDS need to be tasked with direct responsibility to the political leadership. Secondly, the servicemen need to be ungrudgingly compensated for voluntarily accepting the rigours of Army, Navy and Air Force Acts as well as abridgement of certain core fundamental rights.
Supreme national interests enjoin comprehensive resolution of structural flaws in national security governance as well as travails of individuals that steadfastly man the last bastion of national security. A sagacious government will surely rise to the occasion with utmost urgency.
Additionally, appointing a serving or retired military man each in PMO and RM’s office may help in better appreciating the services ethos and would be a commendable step forward to bridge the enduring gap.
Caveat: Yes men would be most convenient, but entirely contra purpose!