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On January 2, the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (DESW), the ministry of defence (MoD) wing that is charged with looking after millions of military veterans across the country, gave these former soldiers a cruel New Year present. It ruled that ex-servicemen who take the MoD to court for disability and pension benefits would have to fight their cases all the way to the Supreme Court.
An DESW office memo, which Business Standard possesses, cites six categories of litigation in which the MoD will appeal automatically. The first is disability pensions, specifically citing the example of Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi, who lost his leg in a gun battle in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war. Oberoi soldiered on without any financial benefit whilst in service but was categorised as 70 per cent disabled when he retired as the army's vice chief in 2001. When the 5th Pay Commission enhanced this to 75 per cent, the MoD refused to pay. In 2012, two years after the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) directed the MoD to pay the modest increase, the DESW appealed in the Supreme Court, dragging Oberoi into another, even more expensive, round of litigation.
Says Oberoi:"For almost two years, this has remained pending. For me, an extra five per cent is not a financial windfall. But the MoD has made my case an example for all future appeals. Most ex-servicemen simply cannot afford to keep litigating."
In the past, numerous impoverished ex-servicemen have abandoned their cases, since they cannot afford endless legal battles against top government lawyers, which the MoD hires at taxpayers' expense. Often veterans die before they can get their dues. The new DESW order transforms this into official MoD strategy.
The DESW memo (MoD ID No.1(11)2013/D (Pension/Legal) dated 02.01.2014), notes that the department had earlier run each case past its law officers to decide whether to appeals against adverse verdicts. Henceforth, the department will appeal automatically, since referring to legal advisors and processing each case on its merits "increases paper work at various levels and delays process of filing of appeal."
The six categories of litigation in the memo cover disability benefits and certain categories of pensions, which involve a high percentage of ex-servicemen litigation - the DESW has refused to provide figures, even in response to queries under the Right to Information (RTI). The memo directs the military to "straight away process such cases for appeal… without routing such cases to the (DESW)." The military should refer only cases where there is a "difference of opinion".
On the eve of Army Day, when the country remembers its veterans, army chief General Bikram Singh says he will raise this issue with the Rajya Raksha Mantri (RRM), Jitendra Singh, who oversees the DESW. "The welfare of ex-servicemen is close to my heart. This issue has been projected at the staff level… This is their right and we at army headquarters have to work to ensure that they get their entitlements. I will take up this case again with the RRM," promises the chief.
Navdeep Singh, a Chandigarh-based lawyer who has campaigned tirelessly to induce the MoD to pay deserving ex-servicemen their dues rather than wearing them out through groundless appeals, says: "Thousands of appeals are being prepared by government lawyers, which will now be filed in the Supreme Court against AFT and High Court judgments granting benefits to disabled soldiers. This will force these poor soldiers to litigate till the Supreme Court. In addition, thousands of cases are already pending because the DESW is unwilling to pay."
Furthermore, say Navdeep Singh, the DESW is snowed under with work from all its appeals. 90 per cent of the judgments that require implementation (after the DESW has exhausted all its legal recourses) remain unexecuted, forcing aggrieved ex-servicemen to file contempt petitions. All this adds to the litigation.
The DESW was set up in 2004 with the stated aim of ensuring "the welfare, resettlement and rehabilitation of ex-servicemen (ESM), war widows and their dependents." A secretary to the government of India heads the department.