The Narendra Modi government is expected to deliver on its “one rank, one pension” (OROP) promise, a promise the prime minister himself made to armed forces veterans when he kicked off his election campaign in Rewari, a southern district of Haryana with a strong tradition of sending men into the armed forces. According to a source, defence minister Manohar Parrikar has approved the policy and payments are to be made with arrears, which will altogether cost the government Rs 8,000 crore.
The pension payment would be linked to an ex-serviceman’s last salary drawn and the government has promised to put a previously retired veteran’s pension at par with that of a freshly retired ex-serviceman of the same rank and years of service. This will partly assuage a 40-year-old grievance of officers and ranks from the three forces.
The government is expected to table the proposal during the ongoing budget session of Parliament, with the release of funds to be announced when the government marks one year in office. Based on the Sixth Pay Commission’s recommendations in 2008, the then government adopted a discriminatory pension policy for ex-servicemen of the same rank and length of service. Simply put, since 2006, ex-servicemen of the same rank and number of years in service have been paid different pension amounts, based on when they had retired.
Ex-servicemen object to this disparity since the cost of living today is the same for everyone, regardless of when they retired. It seemed the government expected that a general, air-marshal or jawan who retired in the 1990s should have a different lifestyle from their successors of the same rank and length of service who retired later with a higher last drawn salary.
Former defence personnel had previously organised themselves and lobbied with the government at different times. But the disparity in pension hurt veterans across ranks and they held a protest rally at India Gate, much to the embarrassment of the then UPA government. A day after his nomination was announced in September 2013 as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Modi’s first speech was not at a party event. The Indian Ex-Servicemen’s Movement (iesm) had organised the event in Haryana and with thousands of ex-servicemen in attendance, Modi had played to the gallery promising he would implement the OROP policy. A week before that, former chief of army staff and now Union minister of state for external affairs, General (retd) V.K. Singh had made the same promise. Both played up the issue because it affects around 24 lakh ex-servicemen, 6.5 lakh martyrs’ widows and the 14 lakh men and women in uniform protecting the country. Ten days after Modi’s speech, then Congress MP Rao Inderjeet Singh, from Gurgaon, gave up his Congress membership and joined the BJP.
After becoming prime minister, Modi had repeated the promise in at least five places, one of them during his much-hyped Diwali visit to Siachen. Due to the high number of veterans from Haryana, Modi had also pitched OROP while campaigning for the recent assembly elections in the state. It had worked before the elections and ex-servicemen had stood behind Modi. Now, the hopeful veterans seem to be a little circumspect about promises of payments, till the dues actually arrive in their bank accounts.
The cynicism is not misplaced. On May 4, 2009, while polling for the 2009 Lok Sabha general elections that were then in progress, there was a backdoor message from the then government that it had constituted not one but two committees to look into the OROP issue. “The Congress had little or no hope of returning to power. We voted for them, trusting their intentions,” claims Major General (retd) Satbir Singh, chairman of iesm.
On May 30, after winning the elections, the UPA rejected the OROP demand, claiming that one of the two high-level committees constituted by it had rejected the demand. “The bureaucracy has always aborted any political attempt to implement OROP. They have used commas and full stops to distort a lucid policy initiative that would have motivated the army and invoked soldiers’ faith in the government,” says Satbir Singh.
During UPA-II’s term, veterans met then defence minister A.K. Antony several times to lobby for OROP implementation. Antony would give them a listen, but kept the proposal in prolonged hibernation. After failed attempts to meet then President of India (who is also supreme commander of the armed forces), veterans had in fact handed back their medals and gallantry awards along with a petition signed in their blood.
An MP finally raised the issue directly with the famously reticent Manmohan Singh to ask what they would do about OROP. “The PM simply said if he allowed OROP for ex-servicemen, the administrative services would also ask for similar pension benefits,” claims the MP. Just before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the UPA made another audacious attempt to seduce ex-servicemen, acknowledging their potential as a vote-bank. On February 17, 2014, the government announced ‘one rank, one pension’ as a budget announcement. It was however too little and too late: Modi had won the allegiance of ex-servicemen.
The veterans last met Parrikar on April 14. After much fidgeting with the government calculator, the minister assured them that the government would announce the policy any day now. The OROP arrears calculations by iesm are nearly Rs 12,000 crore but they are ready to begin with the disbursement of around Rs 8,000 crore.
In 1973, the Third Pay Commission had cut ex-servicemen’s pension and increased that of civilians. The armed forces veterans did not agree to this inequity, citing the life risk and “supreme sacrifice” (of life) involved in serving the armed forces.
There is sufficient pressure on the Modi government not just due to its pre-poll promises, but also due to the demotivating effect not implementing OROP will have on those still serving. Only time will tell if Manmohan Singh’s apprehension was totally unfounded. If the central government accepts the OROP principle, it may well have to be extended to all government employees both at the Centre and in the states. While the Centre may be able to afford the extra expenses, no figure is available yet of the impact it might have on states’ finances.