In the 1965 conflict with Pakistan, Vijay Oberoi, a young army captain from the Maratha Light Infantry, was shot through the thigh in a gunfight with Pakistani raiders in Kashmir. Bleeding profusely from a severed artery, Oberoi was brought to hospital; his life was saved but his leg amputated. In 2001, Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi retired as vice-chief of army staff, having soldiered on for 36 years with an artificial leg. He did not receive a paisa extra in ser vice, and the ministry of defence (MoD) challenged his disability pension in the Supreme Court last Friday.
When General Oberoi was released from service, a medical board categorised him as 70 per cent war-disabled, entitling him to a modest pension benefit. But when the Fifth Pay Commission enhanced this to 75 per cent, that is, an increase of five per cent, the MoD flatly refused to pay. The officer approached the Armed Forces Tribunal (the AFT is the apex departmental court for military cases), which in 2010 directed the MoD to pay the enhanced rate. No way, muttered the MoD! Let’s drag on the case.
Ironically, this appeal was filed by the MoD’s Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (or DESW, headed by secretary, ESW). Far from safeguarding the welfare of retired soldiers, sailors and airmen, many of them disabled from battle injuries or the bleak conditions of service, the DESW views its mandate as stonewalling, effectively holding off payment until an ex-serviceman claimant is either dead or broke. Examination reveals the payment of lakhs of taxpayer rupees to pricey lawyers, including the solicitor general, to stonewall the payment of tiny sums to genuinely entitled ex-servicemen. This strategy often brings the DESW uncontested “victory”, since most retired veterans cannot afford the cost of litigation in the Supreme Court.
It has also brought the DESW the moniker of Department of Eternal StoneWalling.
It is not difficult to see why the Supreme Court has backed General Oberoi on the first hearing, rejecting the DESW’s plea for a stay. The Fifth Pay Commission, in order to curtail medical subjectivity in computing disability percentages and to simplify and rationalise disability pensions, introduced the concept of “broad-banding”. All soldiers with up to 50 per cent disability would be paid 50 per cent disability pension; those between 50 and 75 per cent would be paid 75 per cent; and soldiers with 76 per cent or more disability would be regarded as 100 per cent disabled. Instead of welcoming the simplified arrangement, the MoD perversely restricted “broad-banding” only to soldiers who were prematurely invalided out of service, while withholding benefits from those who completed their service. The AFT swiftly rejected this discrimination, as did the Supreme Court in two rulings last year: K J S Buttar versus Union Of India and Union of India versus Paramjit Singh. But the DESW chose to waste the Supreme Court’s time anyway.
With generals treated thus, there is far less welfare for lower ranks. Take the case of “havildars” (sergeants, or three-stripers, the backbone of the army) who are sometimes rewarded with the honorary rank of “naib subedar” on retirement. The Sixth Pay Commission ruled that honorary naib subedars should get the pension for that rank, rather than havildars’ pension, which was the earlier practice. The DESW, however, only implemented it for post-2006 retirees. The AFT, however, extended this benefit to pre-2006 honorary naib subedars, a judgment that the Supreme Court concurred with. Against army advice, the DESW appealed to the Supreme Court. Appearing in the case, the solicitor general, briefed by the DESW, told the court (and this was included in the judgment) that the benefit was only for havildars who obtained honorary rank prior to retirement. In fact, as the DESW knows well, honorary naib subedar rank is only awarded after retirement. The Army headquarter’s plea that this be rectified has been ignored. To this day, honorary naib subedars remain tricked out of their pension by the DESW. What has been achieved except a further erosion of the MoD’s relationship with the military?
Such skullduggery naturally generates litigation; and the DESW is overwhelmed by the work that it creates for itself. Ninety per cent of all court/tribunal judgments that require implementation (and that is only because the DESW has exhausted every conceivable legal recourse) remain pending until the aggrieved ex-serviceman files a contempt or execution petition. This adds to the already groaning table of litigation.
The military has tried fruitlessly to reduce litigation by simplifying policy and by avoiding automatic appeals against adverse judgments. But the DESW has hardly helped. Replies to Right to Information petitions highlight multiple issues that the DESW has not resolved even after the secretary, ESW, has approved the military’s recommendations. Rudderless and besieged, the department tells lies even to Parliament.
The DESW flatly lied to the Rajya Sabha’s Committee on Petitions last December (see its 142nd report) on the issue of enhanced pensions, falsely stating that it was difficult to process the case for One Rank, One Pension (OROP) since defence pensioners’ documents are destroyed after 25 years. This is untrue; para 595 of the Regulations for the Army mandates the destruction of records after 25 years for non-pensioners only. But no action has been taken against the DESW officer who is responsible for lying to a parliamentary committee.
The DESW also lied to the parliamentary standing committee of the 15th Lok Sabha, understating the number of court/tribunal judgments that had not been implemented. It put the figure at 303, blaming the military. In fact, more than 2,500 judgments await implementation.
With MoD-military relations bruised by the conflict over the army chief’s age, Defence Minister Antony would put some balm on the wounds by examining the workings of the DESW.