Celebrating Vijay Diwas is not enough. It's time to reform armed forces
Beyond OROP, we must overhaul the way service conditions, which affect pensions, are structured.
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This year marks the 44th anniversary of Vijay Diwas, the triumph of Indian armed forces’ win over Pakistan in the 13-day war, considered to be one of the shortest wars in modern history that resulted in the unilateral surrender of the Pakistan Army and led to the creation of Bangladesh.
Vijay Diwas commemorates not just an absolute military triumph, unparalleled in modern Indian history, but also the triumph and heroism of the professional Indian soldier. About 3,843 Indian soldiers died in 1971. About three times that number — 9,851 — were injured.
The photograph of Lt Gen AAK Niazi signing the instrument of surrender on December 16, 1971, in the presence of Lt Gen Aurora adorns my office and still fills me up with pride each time I see it.
As we celebrate the victory and salute the sacrifices of our soldiers, and their display of immense courage and selfless service to our nation, it is important to ensure that, as a nation, we examine if we are doing enough to look after the brave men and women. It is time to have a relook at their service conditions focusing on the economic security and employability of the soldiers, especially those who retire in their early 30s.
The recent announcement of One Rank, One Pension (OROP) was a watershed moment for our defence forces and ex-servicemen, and clearly the biggest and most significant welfare measure for veterans in post-Independence India by any government. The estimated cost of the OROP scheme is about Rs 8,300 crore, which will mark an increase of about 15 per cent in the defence budget per year, and put some burden on the exchequer and the finances of the country.
Pensions are a long-term liability for any government, and with life spans increasing, creates significant challenges in long-term fiscal planning for governments all over — as is the case with India. There is need to reform the way armed forces service conditions are structured — which have an effect on their pensions.
Our jawans are made to retire as early as 34 and officers as early as 54, which for many is the prime of their lives. Because of these early retirements, the government has to bear the costs of these pensions leading to high defence pension costs. Each year, about 50,000 men retire from the armed forces and around 56 per cent of them are below the age of 40. Being from the armed forces, these men are highly trained and disciplined and would be an asset to any organisation.
It is for this reason that I have, time and again, reiterated in the past that the government lay special emphasis on reskilling and rehabilitation of the veterans so that they can be absorbed back in the job market of the country. The reskilling of armed forces personnel must be intensified so that instead of retirement. The armed force personnel are provided lateral opportunities in government institutions like paramilitary forces, the police or at different levels of state administration.
The government must invest in the reskilling of the young veterans, make them adapt to new and emerging technology and even train them to become micro-entrepreneurs. The government must do its bit in providing incentives to the corporates in terms of tax incentives to encourage them to hire more ex-servicemen. In May 2013, a written reply to my parliamentary question says that there was no proposal to provide any tax incentives/concessions to companies who agree to hire retired/released armed forces veterans. I sincerely hope this policy is changed urgently by the new regime as such lateral placements would prove beneficial to our veterans and in turn to the government finances itself.
Also, I firmly believe that it is a national waste to allow a 35-year-old jawan or a 54-year-old officer to retire in the prime of his life. With better medical facilities and fitter soldiers, it is probably a good time to rethink the retirement age of soldiers.
Along with this, I hope that the long-standing demands of our veterans to have a Veterans' Commission is fulfilled. This demand is long overdue. We need a statutory institution to address the concerns and grievances of the ex-servicemen and their families and help them in their time of need. The government has drafted the National Commission for Ex-Servicemen Bill, 2015, to set up the National Commission for Ex-Servicemen, however it still hasn’t figured in the government’s agenda.
Lastly, with the objective of ensuring that the commitment for the men and women of our armed forces, veterans and their families are enshrined in law, I have introduced in Parliament the Armed Forces Covenant Bill as a Private Member’s Bill. The Bill prescribes a commitment between the people of India and the Armed Forces, serving as well as retired, and their families (including bereaved families), pledging a duty of care and improving support towards them in return for their bravery and sacrifices made for protecting the nation. I hope the government supports my Bill.
While we commemorate the heroism of our armed forces and salute their dedication, sacrifice and courage, we must resolve to do more for the brave men and women.