One Rank One Pension (OROP), a matter crucial to the welfare and self-esteem of retired defence services personnel, has been an extremely contentious issue that has been tearing at the heartstrings of the nation for quite some time now. The bitterness felt by the principal stakeholders of the issue was an unenviable inheritance of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) from a host of governments, which had preceded it during the past three decades. Surprisingly, the previous governments had done practically nothing to redress the grievance of the veterans regarding lowly pension rates.
Although the principled stand of BJP on the issue had been well-known since even before the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, the retired defence services personnel resorted to protests and vociferous outbursts of outrage over the continued indifference of the successive governments over the years. The nation watched in disbelief and amazement the virulent attack undeservedly mounted on the Narendra Modi government that had, in reality, been sympathetic to the cause all along. The NDA government’s action in the matter had been characterized by the measured steps characteristically taken in an unhurried, yet steady pace, befitting the tremendous import of the issue. It had warranted a close examination of the financial, administrative and legal aspects of the matter, which had been kept in the cold storage, nay, doghouse, for all these years.
The impatience of the veterans, who felt there was hardly any forward movement in the matter, grew by the day. They were instigated by the Opposition parties with an axe to grind and a highly irresponsible section of the mainstream media that believes in sensationalism rather than objective reporting. As a result, all these assumed darker shades resulting in a deplorable sense of despondency and despair all around. To make matters more confounded, the layman wondered, bemused and blissfully oblivious of the subterranean course of bureaucratic measures set in motion, over the apparent lack of action despite promises on the part of the government.
Eventually when the NDA government announced its momentous decision to implement the One Rank One Pension scheme, there was a mixed response in store. While the government’s decision came, by and large, as a welcome relief measure for the veterans’ camp, there were discordant notes and murmurs of discontentment over the nitty gritty too. Although considerably scaled down, the bitterness and rancour have refused to die down and continued to vitiate the atmosphere.
No Jubilation over Decision
Now that the storm, which had been ominously brewing up has blown over with the announcement of the government’s decision to implement OROP, where is all the jubilation, the hoopla and the celebration over the good news? Shouldn’t the nation which had been slamming the uncomplimentary treatment meted out to that honourable section of the society and pride of the nation, namely the veterans, be all jubilant over justice having been done at long last and simply go agog? Leaving aside the veterans, who still have a few dodgy points of the OROP scheme for the government to look into in further detail, what has been holding back the nation? And what has been preventing the Opposition parties and the more difficult sections of the mainstream media, from falling all over themselves in congratulating the veterans and complimenting the government?
Why the continuance of the sore note? Has it become a characteristic trait of our nation to be grumpy about giving credit where it belongs and paying compliments for a good job well done? How quick we were in rising in criticism! How ruthlessly we castigated the government for its laid-back attitude and lackadaisical approach to the sterling issue! How vociferous and unequivocal we were about justice for those who protect the country’s borders with their lives! How condescending we were about the merits of the issue and restoration of the glory to the meritorious veterans! Why are we still sore and sulking? What are we still fretting and fuming about? Not to make too fine a point, is it not the time for our nation to sit up and self-introspect to get a drift of the disaffection over the issue of OROP?
Notwithstanding the tremendous amount of empathy that the entire nation has for the cause of the defence services personnel, the Opposition parties, the common man and the army veterans seem to have viewed the whole issue from a very biased standpoint and perspective. Does it not remind an impartial observer of the classic Indian parable of a bunch of persons with impaired vision touching and feeling about different body parts of an elephant and trying to describe the animal in totality. The Opposition parties, for instance, had absolutely no concern for the enormity of the issue or the intimidating nature of the challenges ahead in implementing OROP, given the ground realities of the nation’s economy.
The Congress party and its allies, which had been in power for most of the period during the last three decades of the pendency of the issue, had kept OROP on the back burner. This obviously happened because the implementation of the scheme against multiple odds had meant no political dividends, and they did not consider the defence services personnel a constituency worth cultivating. Now that they are themselves in the political wilderness, they are clutching at straws in the wind for dealing a broadside at the NDA government and found in the OROP issue a handy political weapon for doing so.
The stance of the Congress and its allies in the matter is not based on any political or ideological conviction about doing the right thing, but it is totally a matter of political opportunism, pure and simple! Hence, their abortive attempt to steal the thunder from the government by making false claims about having taken the decision and doing all the commendable work themselves! The hollow ring of their claims has, however, been too deafening for the people not to notice. Consequently, the Congress and its allies stand exposed in the eyes of the masses for not only doing nothing when they were in power but also for underwriting the NDA government’s creditable performance in the matter out of spite.
Sensationalism versus Defence Outlays
As regards those sections of the mainstream media that are given to playing up issues for the sake of sensationalism, the issue is still a burning one. They have been whipping a dead horse by talking about how an ungrateful nation has all along ignored the welfare of its soldiers who have unquestioningly served the country with sweat and blood in extreme conditions and daunting circumstances. Countless numbers of columns and blogs have already been written, with more on the way, about how niggardly our soldiers are paid during their service and post-retirement in comparison to their counterparts in developed countries like the US, UK, France and Japan. Such columns and blogs have also ranted about how a nation, which does not pay its Army well, has no moral right to send it to fight wars.
Our soldiers not only fight wars with the enemy across the border, but are also called in to help with relief measures whenever there is a natural disaster at home and, at times, in a neighbouring country like Nepal. All the more reason why they should be treated like the real heroes they are and all their demands met! While doing the comparison along sentimental lines, one conveniently forgets how it does not add up to make much sense to compare the pay structure and pensionary benefits of an Indian soldier with those of his counterpart from a developed country for obvious reasons such as economic viability, the nature of duties performed, etc.
Besides, having never been a colonial power, India has never sent its troops abroad to fight wars like their counterparts in the Western world except for peacekeeping operations as part of the UN Peace Keeping Forces. The only exception to this was the brief role they played as Indian Peace Keeping Forces in Sri Lanka during Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership. Furthermore, India has never started a war with a neighbouring country unlike Pakistan or China, which are given to military adventurism and hegemonic ambitions. Guarding the borders along a harsh land terrain of 15,200 km and a 7,517 km long coastal line, is undoubtedly no mean task, requiring maintenance of a standing army with 1,325,000 active front line personnel and 2,143,000 reserve personnel.
India’s defence budget is a whopping Rs 250,000 crore per year, in addition to which the retired defence services personnel are paid Rs 60,000 crore every year by way of pension. With the announcement of OROP, an additional annual expenditure of Rs 12,000 crore is added to the defence outlay. These are not just statistical figures but the kind of price that the nation has to pay for safeguarding its frontiers from external aggression – during times of relative peace, with countless numbers of border incursions thrown in!
For the people of the country, in general, neither the costs involved nor the challenges faced by the government in implementing the scheme, constitute a matter of concern. Meeting the demands of the defence services personnel, who are an eternal source of inspiration and symbol of patriotism for the crores of awestruck people of the nation beholden to the heroic soldiers, is not only a matter of sentiment and passion but also a means of redemption of its gratitude. Moreover, it is also a sign of its rewarding of supreme patriotism worn on the sleeve by the war veterans as proudly as the shining medals of honour won for valour in wars. In such circumstances, pragmatism tends to take a back seat.
More Categories to Follow
The veterans are still protesting over the perceived inadequacies of the terms of the scheme like the periodicity of the revision of pension rates and the rates of pension. While the review of the pension rates is due every five years as per the scheme, the veterans are demanding an annual revision. Besides, the protestors are demanding that pension be fixed at the highest pay of the rank in which one retires whereas the pension payable as per the approved plan is the average of the highest and lowest rates of the rank pay, with protection to those who are drawing the highest rate. Furthermore, the month from which OROP becomes effective is July this year. The protestors are demanding that the scheme be implemented with effect from April this year. Thus, there is no dearth of points of discord with nary a care to mounting additional costs of implementation!
The possibility of the paramilitary forces and law enforcing agencies like police personnel of different States demanding OROP is becoming more and more distinct and pronounced like ominous dark clouds gathering on the not-too-distant horizon. The question arises as to how justified or fair it would be to treat the soldiers who safeguard the country’s borders from the external enemy as a superior category, the demands of which are to be met at any cost without hesitation or reservation, in preference to the law enforcing agencies that safeguard the integrity of the nation from the evil designs of internal and external enemies? No doubt, the defence services workforce have a shorter duration of service in comparison to the personnel of the law enforcing agencies, due to which they are deprived of the benefits of periodic pay revisions.
Furthermore, there are other differences too, which set the soldiers apart as a special category. But differences in the retirement age and service conditions pale into insignificance when the contrast stops at that. Because there is no comparing the employees of the law enforcing agencies with defence services personnel in the matter of valour and selfless service which both the categories of staff display in their respective spheres of operations in the service of the nation. As in the case of defence services workforce, application of OROP to the law enforcement agencies could not be linked to the expenditure outlays for reasons of sentiment. Yet another government sector wanting OROP is the Railways, the personnel of which have made the demand some time ago.
Less Government, More Governance
How dramatic, if not devastating, an effect will the spiraling costs of implementation of OROP to the complete satisfaction of the protesting defence services personnel, have on the country’s budget? Where can the line of distinction be drawn between different government services in applying OROP? Are the people of the nation ready to take on additional taxes in future budgets to meet the demands of the swelling tribe of government personnel demanding OROP? In the clamour by more and more government department personnel demanding OROP, and the snowballing of expenditure outlays to meet these requirements, has the nation forgotten all about the droughts and famines and the consequent hardships and suffering of the farmers all over the country?
How far is our nation prepared to go to meet the demands of the defence services personnel, law enforcement agencies and similar workforce in the government machinery without compromising its obligation to other economic and social sectors? Is the nation not committed to the basic tenet of good governance enunciated by Narendra Modi before and after the Lok Sabha 2014-15 elections – less government and more governance? Where do we draw the red line of less government? Now is undoubtedly one of the moments of reckoning, which every nation on the right course of progress and development faces to be able to answer the daunting questions.
What is obvious, in any case, is that the nation should collectively decide its response to the culture of protests, demonstrations and rallies, and not leave it to the government which is meant to give clean governance which, in turn, brooks no interferences. The nation should not buckle under pressure. Nor should the government allow itself to be sucked into the quagmire of non-developmental expenditures. Having traversed thus far, it is probably time to bring the issue to a swift conclusion and move on in quest of productivity and progress with no interferences, a condition very vital for good governance.