Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Defence Personnel get a raw deal, disabled are worst hit

Please refer to my earlier post dated 11 Feb 2014 titled: Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare working against the interest of Disabled Soldiers

Defence Personnel  or Ex-Servicemen are at a great disadvantage in respect of pay, pension and medical benefits compared with civilian government employees. It is none other than their own department called Department of Ex-servicemen Welfare who is working against their interest and resorting to appeals against all orders of Armed Forces Tribunal that went in favour of the soldiers. 

FRONTLINE Article

Over the past five years, ex-servicemen have been agitating against the injustice meted out to them by the Central government. They have lost faith in the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (DESW), created specifically to take care of their welfare. Ex-servicemen have won 90 per cent of the cases filed in the Armed Forces Tribunals and the Supreme Court against the government, but the government has appealed in all the cases through the DESW.

The veterans have approached the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister to seek redress in numerous cases where they felt injustice had been done to them but to no avail. The Supreme Court’s judgments in their favour have either not been implemented or not been implemented in letter and spirit in cases pertaining to disability pensions, payment of arrears with retrospective effect from January 1, 2006, rank pay, and hospital charges on authorised Ex-servicemen Contributory Health Scheme (ECHS) rates for medical treatment abroad.

The government files en masse appeals against retired defence personnel whenever any case relating to pension benefits is decided in their favour by any court of law or the Armed Forces Tribunal. Facing the brunt of the government’s apathy is the category of disabled and war-disabled soldiers. Most of the special leave petitions and appeals filed by the Ministry of Defence in the Supreme Court are against the grant of disability or war injury benefits to disabled and war-disabled soldiers. As a result, the veterans are forced into expensive litigation.

Over 3,000 cases decided in favour of defence personnel by the Armed Forces Tribunal have not been implemented; the Defence Ministry has contested all these judgments in the Supreme Court. Imagine the plight of a widow of a sepoy living in a far-flung rural area. How is she going to find the resources to fight her case in the Supreme Court? The tribunals were created for delivering speedy justice to defence personnel at minimum cost. But the Ministry’s decision to appeal against the tribunal’s judgments has not only delayed justice but also made it near impossible for the defence personnel to fight their cases. The Armed Forces Tribunals do not have contempt powers to get their judgments implemented whereas Central Administrative Tribunals (CATs) are vested with such powers.

This is the biggest cause of heart burning in the military community today. Military personnel with non-service-related disabilities discharged with less than 10 years of service remaining are not entitled to any form of pension, whereas the employment of civilian employees who “acquires a disability during his service” is protected under Section 47 of the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995.

As per the Sixth Central Pay Commission recommendations, all government servants are allowed three assured career progressions. Civilians who retire at the age of 60 are allowed promotions at 10, 20 and 30 years of service, and soldiers at eight, 16 and 24 years. However, since jawans are forced to retire early, largely between 15 and 19 years of service, to keep up the young profile of the forces, they miss out on at least one assured career progression, unlike their civil counterparts, who serve their full term until superannuation. It has been proposed to the government that the third career progression should be given to jawans automatically; they should be promoted to the rank of naib subedar at the time of retirement. Surprisingly, this demand has not been accepted.

Widow’s pension

Widow’s pension is one area of concern to the defence community that has received little attention from the government. A sepoy’s widow pension has remained a meagre Rs.3,500 a month while other sections of government employees have received periodic increases in such pension. The minimum family pension in respect of defence widows must be enhanced from Rs.3,500 to Rs.10,000 a month.

It is common knowledge that soldiers retire ahead of their time. What is not known, however, is that their life expectancy is shorter than that of civilians. The Institute of Applied Research in Manpower Analysis (IARM), which studied the lifespan of civilian employees at the behest of the Fifth Pay Commission, arrived at 77 years as the average life expectancy of a civilian government servant. The Railways conducted a similar exercise for their personnel and assessed that they achieved an average lifespan of 78 years. No such study was conducted for defence personnel since it was generally believed that soldiers lived longer than civilians. However, Major General (retired) Surjit Singh, AVSM (Athi Vishisht Seva Medal), VSM (Vishisht Seva Medal), who headed the Army Cell of the Fifth Pay Commission, carried out a detailed study in 2005 along with other experts. The study revealed that the average lifespan of defence officers was 72.5 years; that of junior commissioned officers (JCOs) 67 years; and that of other ranks was between 59.6 and 64 years.

These findings were forwarded to the Chief of the Army Staff General J.J. Singh on July 7, 2005, by Lieutenant General (retd) M.M. Lakhera, PVSM (Param Vishisht Seva Medal), AVSM, VSM, who was Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry. The findings were reported by all national newspapers and a question was asked in Parliament on the subject. Pranab Mukherjee, who was the Defence Minister then, maintained that the issue would be examined in detail. Nothing was heard about it after that.

Stress and strain of early retirement is one of the major reasons for the lower life expectancy among the defence personnel. Their legitimate demand for an assured second career until the age of 60 through an Act of Parliament has not yet been accepted.

While the pensions of all ranks were enhanced with effect from September 24, 2012, to redress the anomaly of the Sixth Pay Commission, the request to enhance the pension of JCOs proportionately was not granted. Majors with 13 years and more of service who retired before 2004 have been denied the benefit of the rank of lieutenant colonel (that is, the benefit of pay band-4 in the revised scale of the Sixth Pay Commission).

The government’s policy to grant lieutenant colonel rank on completion of 13 years of service was made applicable with effect from 2004. It would have been only just to grant all those who retired before 2004 in the rank of major with 13 years of commissioned service (this number being finite) the benefit of pension on the scale of lieutenant colonel. The strong plea in this regard has not been accepted.

Also, the non-functional upgrade (NFU) granted to civilian employees has been denied to defence personnel, thereby putting them at a disadvantage.

One Rank One Pension

One of the major demands of veterans is same pension for same rank and same length of service, that is, same rank + same length of service = same pension, irrespective of the date of retirement. They want a legislative guarantee to this. Although all major political parties have agreed to this in principle and frequently incorporate it in their election manifestos, this 40-year-old demand has not been implemented. The bureaucratic excuses in the form of administrative, legal and financial hurdles in implementing the demand were heard in detail in 2011 by the Rajya Sabha Petition Committee set up to look into all aspects of the demand and rejected them in the strongest terms. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had agreed to this provision in principle, but her untimely death scuttled the proposal. Successive Standing Committees on Defence and the Rajya Sabha Petition Committee have recommended this but to no avail.

Before 2006, the difference in the pensions of Major General and Lieutenant General was only Rs.1,400. Subsequently, it became Rs.700. With the extension of higher administrative grade (HAG) and HAG+ to the rank of Lieutenant General and above, the difference in pension is more than Rs.8,000 even after the increase with effect from September 24, 2012. The government has overlooked the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations, which suggested that all government employees with a basic pay of Rs. 20,000 and above be clubbed under the same pay band. Major Generals retire with a basic pay of Rs.22,400 and above while Lieutenant Generals retire with a basic pay of Rs.23,500 and above. Non-inclusion of major generals in HAG has caused an anomaly.

On losing the case, the Defence Ministry filed a review petition in the Supreme Court, denying enhanced arrears to army pensioners as ordered by the Delhi High Court with retrospective effect from January 1, 2006, instead of September 24, 2012.

Civilian employees are provided health care under the Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS) while ex-servicemen are covered under the ECHS. The provision of budget for the CGHS is calculated (for 2013-14) at the rate Rs.10,700 for every beneficiary while for the ECHS, it has been budgeted at Rs.3,150 a beneficiary. As a result, super-speciality hospitals do not offer themselves for ECHS empanelment. Over 80 per cent of the health care units have withdrawn from empanelment in view of delayed payment of bills and inadequate rates for various medical procedures. This has resulted in unsatisfactory or poor medical care for ex-servicemen. Sophisticated procedures have not been included in the ECHS. The veterans’ request for inclusion of the latest medical procedures on the ECHS benefits list has not been accepted yet. Ex-servicemen had requested that the budget be enhanced and not be less than the CGHS rates.

Here is an example to illustrate the poor nature of health care benefits provided by the government to ex-servicemen. Non-availability of funds with the ECHS and, as a consequence, non-payment of hospital dues made an empanelled hospital in Gurgaon in the National Capital Region to stop accepting patients for cashless medical treatment. Ex-Subedar Prakash Chandra Tomar from Meerut was brought to the hospital in a serious condition on December 8, 2013, which as per the ECHS scheme is permitted. The family was asked by the hospital authorities to deposit the money for the treatment or transfer the patient to some other hospital. Since the condition of the patient was serious, the family raised a loan and deposited Rs.11 lakh for 20 days of hospitalisation and treatment.

When the family was in no position to arrange further funds, Tomar’s son, Raj Kumar Tomar, approached the Indian Ex-Servicemen’s Movement (IESM) and the case was taken up with the Managing Director of the ECHS, who promised to get cashless treatment. But he did not succeed. The family deposited another Rs.2 lakh in the hospital. On January 1, Subedar Prakash died. The hospital did not accede to the request of the ECHS to release the body and insisted that the family clear the hospital bills.

In November 2008, the government had announced that in future there would be a separate pay commission for the defence forces. The defence fraternity feels betrayed as the government has not constituted a separate pay commission, and, as in the case of the previous commissions, there is no representation for defence forces in the newly constituted Seventh Pay Commission. Some 39 anomalies in defence pensions are yet to be resolved and with no defence representation in the new pay commission, more anomalies are likely to appear thereby increasing the magnitude of injustice already done to defence pensioners.

Denial of voting rights

It is surprising that serving defence personnel are denied the right to get themselves registered as voters at the place of posting. In spite of a clear judgment by the Supreme Court in 1971, this basic right has not been extended to soldiers. The option of postal ballot and proxy voting available to serving soldiers has not proved effective. There is no restriction imposed in the Representation of the People Act, 1950, to deny this right to defence personnel. There is an urgent need to restore this right immediately to allow serving soldiers to vote at their place of posting in the coming Lok Sabha elections.

The prevailing security environment calls for strong measures to upgrade the country’s defence preparedness in terms of manpower, equipment and weapon systems. Equally important are measures to keep the soldier’s morale high.

Source: Frontline

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