Thursday, October 20, 2016

Disabled Soldiers & Politics of their Disability Pension

Dear Colleagues,

Here is a wonderful article by  Maj Navdeep Singh, a veteran and a fellow lawyer at Punjab and Haryana High Court. In this connection, you may also refer to  my earlier post dt. 26 Feb 2014 "DESW works against Ex-Servicemen disabled during service are worst hit".

Questions of compensation

India has the distinction of exhibiting disdain towards the cause of disabled soldiers

India is quite a paradox. There is excessive chest-thumping for our men and women in uniform on the one hand and pride in laying constant siege to the benefits and legal rights of those very personnel whom we superficially cheer while on parades on the other.

And bearing the brunt of this all are our disabled soldiers. The deleterious effect the stress and strain of military service has on a soldier’s health is a universally recognised phenomenon. In fact, most nations go out of the way to make the lives of their troops more comfortable — as seen in rising payouts for their loss of health. However, India has the distinction of exhibiting utter disdain towards the cause of disabled soldiers. At a very rudimentary level, for example, one has defence services accountants asking how ailments such as heart disease, neurosis, backache, seizures — common in civilians too — can be affected or aggravated by military service.

The service-disability connection

It is not difficult to discern that a highly unsettled and regimented life, away from family most of the year, and at times under the shadow of the gun, the inability to cope with domestic commitments, and a lack of community living, sexual fulfilment and physical proximity, curtailed freedoms and rights, can all lead to an aggravation of common medical conditions. The life of military personnel or even paramilitary troopers who are on duty almost 24 hours a day and who require permission to use even a washroom or visit a market after signing multiple registers, cannot be compared with civilians who live with their families and have fixed and reasonable working hours in a week.

Disability rules in India and other democracies are balanced and work on the presumption of a military service-disability connection. But the army of accountants and financial wizards often rejects such disability claims leading to numerous instances of judicial intervention. When disability benefits are awarded by courts and tribunals, there is more shock in store. The Ministry of Defence appeals against the claims of disabled, at times over amounts as little as a few hundred rupees. Between 2012-2013, 90 per cent of all appeals filed in the Supreme Court by the Ministry of Defence were against disabled soldiers. The efforts of the Defence Minister to control the litigation malaise are being met with strong resistance from the official-legal ecosystem which thrives on the miseries of disabled soldiers.

Paring pension rates
A recent example was the recommendation made in the Seventh Central Pay Commission to slash disability pension rates. The observation was that as there was an increase in the percentage of disabled officers in the defence services vis-à-vis the lower ranks, benefits needed to be slashed from the “percentage of pay system” to a “slab system” which would be more equitable for ranks other than officers. The recommendation was that from the current formula of “30% of pay for 100% disability”, the disability element should now be granted at the fixed rate of Rs. 27,000, Rs.17,000 and Rs.12,000 for Commissioned Officers, Junior Commissioned Officers and Other Ranks respectively for 100 per cent disability, and proportionately reduced for lesser disability. Surprisingly, no such corresponding “equitable” change was recommended for civilian disability pensioners, including those from the Central Armed Police Forces, who continue to receive benefits on the basis of “percentage of pay”.

Statistically, there is a higher probability of officers incurring disability than jawans since the latter start retiring in their 30s after about 15-plus years of service. Officers retire in their 50s after a service period spanning 30 years or more. It shocks one that those who are maimed and infirm have to bear insults when instead there should be concern about the rise in stress and strain and a deteriorating health profile among defence personnel.

The recommendation was made suo motu based on data by the Defence Accounts Department to the commission and without being authenticated by the defence services. No opportunity was granted to discuss the issue. The accounting jugglery is even more jarring since the slab system would result in a better payout only to those rare cases where those in the lower ranks are medically boarded out at the start of their careers, while it results in a loss to all jawans who are released on completion of regular service terms. In the higher ranks, the difference is more glaring. A Lieutenant General who is 100 per cent disabled and drawing a disability element of Rs.52,560 as of December 31, 2015, would now get Rs.27,000 on January 1, 2016. His civilian counterpart, on a par earlier, would now get Rs.67,500. While the pay commission has handsomely increased all pensions, which includes civil disability, it has slashed those for military disability; in some instances by more than half. The fact that vested interests have twisted the issue on social media citing ‘government sources’ makes this even more unfortunate.

What is the use of all the pomp and show at military displays or basking in the glory of our military achievements if we cannot take care of our disabled soldiers? They may form a minuscule percentage, but they certainly deserve much better.

About Major Navdeep Singh - Major Singh is a veteran and an advocate at the Punjab and Haryana High Court. He was the founding President of the Armed Forces Tribunal Bar Association, Chandigarh., and is Member of the International Society for Military Law and the Law of War at Brussels

Source: The Hindu

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