Author : Deepak Sinha

Originally Published 2020-11-30 11:22:32 Published on Nov 30, 2020
Putting the defence pension narrative in perspective

If you are a military veteran, the question that often comes to mind these days is why is the issue of military pensions dominating the news cycle so much? It started with the OROP kerfuffle, that incidentally, has yet to be resolved, and on which reams have already been written and much said. The fact that it continues to cause immense anger and frustration within the veteran community is not so much because Prime Minister Modi backtracked on his promises, not unexpected from politicians, but more so for the lies that continue to be spouted in justification.

What is off course even more distressing is the manner in which this issue has been handled by the Hon’ble Supreme Court, A case initiated by the veteran community against perceived injustice in the matter has been in progress there for some time now. Just when the case was close to finalization, the concerned Bench could not find the time, despite listing the issue, to hear closing arguments thereby pushing back the case indeterminately to the New Year. Raising the distinct possibility that this case may now be heard by a new bench, which implies that it will be heard ab initio resulting in further delay, a situation that would obviously suit this government which cannot otherwise get away by fudging facts in court.

What is one to make of this rather unfortunate state of affairs? That the Hon’ble Justices were able to spare their precious time to intervene in the matter of Arnab Goswami’s bail plea over alleged fraud but not for a matter that effects the lives of millions of men and women who have sacrificed much for this country speaks volumes. Undoubtedly, one would possibly not be incorrect in assuming this to be another cut and dried example of, what Pratap Bhanu Mehta has referred to as “Judicial Barbarism”.

The Government has on numerous occasions attempted to make the case that the military pension bill has risen exponentially, especially after the Government granted what it terms as “OROP”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Firstly, to call what has been sanctioned as OROP is a travesty, since it is far removed from what was recommended by the Parliamentary Committee, chaired by a BJP Member, that went into the matter. These recommendations were subsequently approved by Parliament and accepted by the Modi Government. As matters stand, forget what was promised, this Government has not even followed the terms of the letter that it itself drafted. The equalization of pensions that it insisted, against vociferous opposition from the veteran community, was to be carried out on a five- yearly basis and was due, has yet to be carried out.

More importantly, figures available in public domain, if correct, suggest that the growth in pension budgets of Central Government employees, including those in the Defence Ministry, over the past decade have shown a similar growth pattern, between 384% for Central Government (Less Railways, Telecom, Posts and Defence) and 393% for Defence. Therefore, if there is cause for concern, it should not just be restricted to defence pensions but to the pension outlay of all employees of the Central Government as well. As a matter of fact, if reining in of pensions is the issue, then this Government should have shown utmost urgency in tackling the pension outlay of Telecom employees that has grown by 559% in the same period.

Interestingly, while 46% of all Central Government Employees are with the Defence Ministry, it only accounts for 44% of the pension budget. Add to this the simple fact that the approximately 5 Lakh civilians paid out of the Defence Pension Budget, who make up just 20% all defence pensioners, actually account for 33% of that budget. Clearly, therefore, one cannot avoid but categorically conclude that military veterans receive the lowest per capita pension amongst all Central Government Pensioners. While this is patently unfair and requires thorough scrutiny, what is even worse is the false narrative being propagated that pensions within the military have grown astronomically and must be controlled. Not unexpectedly, the CDS, General Bipin Rawat’s, proposals to rein in defence pensions are not only thoughtless, shortsighted and impractical, but premised on a wholly false narrative. What would really be unfortunate is if such a narrative is being deliberately promoted to control the one institution that continues to remain secular and apolitical.

With regard to the overall Defence Budget, the truth is that it has been pegged too low for some time now to allow for realistic allocation for capital expenses. While some measures can help reduce revenue expenditure, such as downsizing the half a million strong civilians employed in the ministry, it falls on the political leadership to decide what priority national security deserves. There appears to be is a serious dichotomy here that while on one hand the Government is intent on doubling the number of CAPF units for internal policing, it is also simultaneously attempting to reduce defence expenditure despite facing two extremely antagonistic and hostile neighbours. Between them, both these nations spend approximately $220 Billion on defence and if we hope to contain them with an annual allocation of less than a quarter of that, then we are living in a fool’s paradise. It is time Mr. Modi understood a simple fact of life, despite his best efforts, he cannot have his cake and eat it too!

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Deepak Sinha

Deepak Sinha

Brig. Deepak Sinha (Retd.) was Visiting Fellow at ORF. Brig. Sinha is a second-generation paratrooper. During his service, he held varied command, staff and instructional appointments, ...

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