Saturday, August 22, 2015
Modi to walk OROP talk
General Dalbir Singh is to embark on his toughest challenge since taking over as army chief last July. Beginning August 25, sources say, the Army chief will mediate in a contentious battle between the government and ex-servicemen on the implementation of One Rank, One Pension (OROP).
The unprecedented step of involving the army chief was precipitated by a series of events over the past few months: an unresolved deadlock between the defence and finance ministries, the impact of simmering street protests on serving armed forces personnel and the failure of talks between the government and ex-servicemen. The OROP issue is now being handled directly by the PMO which will attempt to resolve the issue. On August 18, General Dalbir Singh first intervened to facilitate a meeting between the PM's Principal Secretary Nripendra Misra and ex-servicemen.
The hour-long meeting, the veterans' first interaction with the government since the start of their June 15 relay hunger strike, ended inconclusively. Misra wanted the protesting military veterans to "restore normalcy", wind down their nationwide campaign-particularly a fast-unto-death begun by three ex-servicemen at Jantar Mantar on August 17. The veterans wanted a deadline for implementation. Misra could give them none.
Prime Minister Modi, sources told India Today, was keen to firewall the service chiefs from the two-month-long protest by the veterans at Jantar Mantar. Now, he had little option but to recognise the umbilical ties between serving and retired soldiers. General Dalbir Singh will be represented by senior serving army officers in the talks with the veterans. "Only a serving army chief can command the respect of the ex-servicemen," a veteran says. The build-up had been gradual. On August 13, four former armed forces chiefs wrote to President Pranab Mukherjee warning him that the stand-off had the potential to inflict long-term damage on India's apolitical military ethos and the self-esteem of its serving soldiers.
The Delhi Police's inept attempt to evict the protesting veterans from Jantar Mantar on August 14 pumped fresh oxygen into the struggle. Visuals of veterans being roughed up by police triggered outrage across the country and prompted an angst-ridden open letter signed by seven former army chiefs, two former air force chiefs and a navy chief to the PM. The August 17 letter condemned the police action and warned of serious blowback from the OROP imbroglio to the services.
It was the worst indictment of the government by former chiefs. No issue has in recent years prompted 14 former service chiefs to write to the government, another sign of how the NDA completely misread the campaign. Worse, by repeatedly promising to deliver on an issue deflected by earlier governments and then seeming to backtrack on his commitment, Prime Minister Modi exposed himself to ridicule. "He promised a Rs 1.25-lakh crore package for Bihar but he does not have Rs 8,000 crore for OROP for ex-servicemen, who for the first time are sitting on protest," Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi said in Amethi on August 18.
The PMO was already in firefighting mode three days before the PM's Independence Day speech, where he once again reiterated his government's commitment to OROP as "a long-pending issue, whose discussions were underway and in the last stages". On August 12, PMO officials contacted former army chief General Ved Prakash Malik to mediate with the ex-servicemen. General Malik then roped in a passionate OROP votary, Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament Rajeev Chandrasekhar. The negotiations which took place in Chandrasekhar's North Avenue office involved General Malik, a joint secretary from the PMO and veterans' groups. But just two days later, by August 14, the former chief realised that both sides were unwilling to compromise. Talks broke down completely.
With the PMO now once again set to resume talks with the veterans beginning August 25, it will have to negotiate the same minefield which the parleys with General Malik and Misra walked over-to get ex-servicemen to agree to reduce their demands.
If the government agrees to OROP from 2015 onwards, it will need to pay Rs 8,293 crore per year plus an equal sum in arrears for 2014.
In negotiations with the veterans it revealed a willingness to pay Rs 4,000 crore and hike existing pensions by 50 per cent. The government wants to make 2011, not 2014, as the year for a cut-off date for revised pensions, far short of the OROP that the veterans want.
Anything less than One Rank, One Pension will only mean enhancing the existing pensions," says Major General Satbir Singh, chairman of the Indian Ex Servicemen Movement (IESM), who lists three key demands:
(a) The definition of OROP is sacrosanct and will not be tampered with-equal pensions for similar ranks and same length of service, regardless of the last drawn pay;
(b) OROP will be effective from April 1, 2014, as per the UPA's February 2014 decision;
(c) and that the NDA should announce a date of implementation.
These will prove to be hard decisions for the government to take especially on an issue that seemed a done deal when Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar calculated last December that the government's Rs 1.25 lakh crore annual pension bill would marginally increase when it paid Rs 8,293 crore to the ex-servicemen.
The Arun Jaitley-led finance ministry stubbornly opposed this. "It (OROP) will impose a huge financial burden on us and open the floodgates for similar such claims from the paramilitary forces," a senior finance ministry official told india today.
Irrespective of its outcome, the acrimony over OROP has upset the delicate civil-military balance. "There are some people who feel that the neglect of the military has tended to become contempt for the military," says General Malik.
Clearly the hidden costs of this imbroglio will be more than just financial.