The continuing agitation by retired military officers against the “one-rank-one-pension”, or Orop, scheme announced earlier this year by the government is generating both concern and confusion.
As disturbing as the sight of protesting retired soldiers is the murky bureaucratese of the military pension system. This invariably leads to the question: what really is the Orop agitation all about?
Simply put, Orop means that anyone superannuating from the armed forces will receive the same pension as a person of similar rank and length of service, no matter when they retire. Moreover, every time pension rates are enhanced, the increase will automatically be passed on to all pensioners new and old.
This scheme was put into effect in February 2016 and since then more than two million military pensioners and their widows have received enhanced pensions, which are reported to have cost the exchequer more than Rs 5,500 crores. About one lakh more pensioners, many of them old and with lost records, are yet to receive pension benefits.
The Orop agitation now has spiralled into a full-blown political war with the Opposition targeting the government for not fulfilling its pledge to the armed forces. Instead of easing heightened emotions, the government has blundered by making insensitive statements and trying to run down the agitation as an Opposition-sponsored one.
The defence minister, far from assuaging the Orop agitators, has hardened his position by claiming that the vast majority of servicemen support the government’s implementation of Orop.
This points to a failure to connect with the military. Reports suggest that the continued agitation is causing confusion and concern within the military ranks as the reward of a lifetime pension is primarily what attracts recruits.
A significant section of retired service officers, it must be noted, do not support the current agitation or the manner in which it is being conducted. They point out that in every negotiation there must be some give and take and no one party should expect 100 per cent satisfaction. They maintain that unlike past governments, the Narendra Modi government has fulfilled 90 per cent of the Orop demands and that hundreds of thousands of ex-servicemen and military widows have benefited from the increased rollout of pensions.
These officers believe that their agitating co-officers should acknowledge the fact that the reasons behind the government’s inability to meet every demand is due to fiscal constraints and not an anti-military mindset.
They also argue that military officers today cannot be considered impecunious by any means. Pensions today are generous by most standards and retired personnel enjoy free medical benefits, subsidised canteen and other facilities, which civilians do not. All this, say the proponents of the Orop agitation, is beside the point.
They claim what the present government has implemented is a watered-down version of Orop. The agitators among other things want pensions to be revised every year instead of every two years (compared to every 10 years earlier) and oppose the exclusion of Orop for personnel who opt for premature retirement.
The military, being a highly pyramidical organisation, compulsorily retires almost 90 per cent of its personnel before they are 40 years old. A great percentage of the older ones who remain do not have promotion prospects and many of them seek premature retirement. For thousands of such officers, pension remains a prime concern.
However, the Orop agitation is not so much a matter of detail, of how much the government has given or not given, whether the Orop idea has been implemented in spirit or, as civilian bureaucrats maintain, an issue reflective of the insatiable greed of a group of service personnel.
The problem is the bureaucracy and its blatant machinations since 1973 when the Third Pay Commission gave the first body blow to the military. Both pensions and salaries of the military were slashed while those of the civil services hiked. The latest pay commission continues along the same lines and has been rejected by the service chiefs.
Since then there has been a growing feeling in the military, particularly the Army, that their status and emoluments relative to the civil bureaucracy have deliberately and systematically been eroded.
This feeling finally snowballed into the full-fledged agitation in 2009 with senior retired officers coming out in the streets. This was an agitation without parallel and its continuance remains a great source of worry for ordinary citizens.
Ironically, issues that are only tangentially connected to Orop are currently agitating ex-servicemen and giving a fillip to Orop agitators. The two specific issues of great emotive value for the military are disability pension and its status vis-à-vis the civil bureaucracy.
On October 18, 2016, a joint secretary in the ministry of defence reportedly issued a circular according to which all senior officers were downgraded against their civilian counterparts. Thus, a major general who was earlier equivalent to a joint director was downgraded to a principal director, a colonel to a joint director from director and so on.
Some years earlier, Pranab Mukherjee had suggested upgrading the status of military officers as compared to their civilian counterparts, but the bureaucracy ensured the opposite happened.
The defence minister was told by his bureaucrats that nothing had changed and that the reports of the downgrading of ranks were false. The minister believed them.
What made matters worse was that the administrative diktats downgrading the military coincided with the “surgical strikes” carried out by the Army in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This was tantamount to waving a red rag before an already unsettled military.
Similarly, disability pensions were slashed on the very day of the surgical strikes, causing huge resentment in the military. A military life is inherently dangerous and injuries leading to disabilities can destroy a soldier’s life.
Unlike civilian employees, thousands of soldiers get booted out of the military prematurely if they fall short of medical requirements. A disability pension is the only way to compensate these unfortunate men who have lost out.
Yet, a bureaucratic order on September 29 this year introduced a “slab system” for disability pension under which an officer would get a flat rate of Rs 27,000 per month, a junior commissioned officer Rs 17,000 and all other ranks Rs 12,000. This effectively lowered actual payments made under the earlier percentage system where disability pension was calculated as a percentage of last pay drawn.
Mischievous bureaucrats increasingly pose a grave threat to national integrity. They thrive in a system that allows too much power in their hands and remain unaccountable to all except their minister. If the minister can be “managed”, the bureaucrats can get away with anything.
Today the entire Orop controversy is quintessentially a battle between a section of the military and the civil bureaucracy. To make matters worse this fight has escalated into a full-scale political one, and will stay that way.
It will require great statesmanship to rid the military community of its collective angst and steer the military establishment away from the brink. Sadly, given the current political climate, it seems unlikely anything like that will happen.