At 1425hours 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 one was expecting the measures of the usual kind, 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 to ensure something concrete in the upcoming budget.
“It was about time. In fact we were expecting this since a long while,” 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 Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) 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 the ex-servicemen community. 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 OROP’ 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 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, stories of different kinds have emerged.
The system mistreating and misinforming widows and relatives, men and officers forced to fight unending battles in courts, botched up medical treatment causing disability and the system being blind to it and so on. 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. Why? On programs one has aired and debates one has participated in over this subject, no former bureaucrat wants to turn up. Why? I once walked up to a Defence Secretary and asked him 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 welfare? 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, advocate Punjab and Haryana High Court who has to his credit many wrongs rectified for service personnel said, “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 is the only organisation which has close to 90 per cent of its appeals in the apex court against its own soldiers.”
Can we fault those who say that it is the bureaucracy which is the stumbling block in this case? It is not my case that the bureaucracy is without merit. But it is important to engage. Let both sides of the debate emerge. Let the people know.
I will never forget that day when a serving Brigadier shocked me by saying how he yelled at his son because he told him he wanted to follow his footsteps and join the army. This is what the system has brought things to.
Will even one bureaucrat respond, at least now?