Thursday, June 25, 2015

Veteran sword hangs on '65 war carnival- Test awaits govt as pension parity protest hots up across country by Sujan Dutta

New Delhi, June 23: 

Standing by the Jantar Mantar Road this afternoon, Dafadar Gurnam Singh and Gunner Mahender Singh use their big strong hands to keep the tender marigold garlands around their necks from being torn off by the wind. The flowers are worn with pride. It is not often that they have been feted so publicly. The Dafadar is from Benra and the Gunner from Kantro, both villages in Punjab's Sangrur district. Mahender Singh, now 70, was 33 when he was retired in 1978 from the 221 medium artillery regiment after fighting in the 1965 and the 1971 wars.

Gurnam Singh, now 75 years, was a wireless operator with the 63rd Cavalry, an armoured unit with Stuart IV tanks in the 1965 war, the event that the Narendra Modi government is planning to celebrate 50 years on in August-September. Gurnam Singh retired in Dec 1982 when he was 42.

In New Delhi this afternoon, the former soldiers are part of a group of about 60 that is on a relay hunger-strike demanding "one rank one pension" or OROP. The attendance may be thin, but the agitationis being watched closely because of the potential political impact on the armed forces. "Today's soldiers are tomorrow's veterans," one officer said.

The protest is being replicated in 55 towns and cities, the spokespersons say. In Bengal, former Gorkha soldiers, mostly in the Darjeeling hills, have also raised the demand. They are among the troops who threaten to send the Modi government's planned "Carnival of the 1965 war" askew, taking a cue from Wing Commander (retired) Suresh Karnik. Last month in Pune, the fighter pilot who won a Vir Chakra - the third-highest award for gallantry - for his daredevilry in 1971 refused to participate in a programme presided over by defence minister Manohar Parrikar in support of the "OROP" demand. "We have decided to boycott all government programmes till our demand is met," says Major General (retired) Satbir Singh, among the most vocal spokespersons of the Indian Ex-Servicemen's Movement. In the crowd at Jantar Mantar today were three former officers, including Satbir Singh. Satbir Singh pointed to a group of about 20 Sikhs who, he said, had all seen action in the 1965 war.
Mahender Singh, the gunner, today earns post-retirement benefits of about Rs 18,000 per month plus medical expenses and subsidised ration. Gurnam Singh, the dafadar, gets Rs 20,000. If "one rank one pension" were to be implemented today, Mahender Singh has been told that his pension would be close to Rs 35,000, the same as a gunner retiring now would get. Gurnam Singh has been told he deserves Rs 40,000, the same a havildar (equivalent to a dafadar) retiring today would be entitled to.

That, in short, is "OROP" the demand that soldiers retiring at the same rank with the same length of service should get the same pension irrespective of the year of retirement. Unlike other central employees, military personnel serve up to the age of 60 years only if they have achieved the rank of Lt. Gen or its equivalent. Most officers in the army retire by the time they reach 54 and most other ranks are retired before they reach the age of 40. There are an estimated 25 lakh military veterans and six lakh widows who would benefit from OROP. Only about 5 per cent retired as officers.

In the defence and finance ministries and in the Prime Minister's Office, bureaucrats look askance. What may hold good for the "other ranks" - meaning personnel below officer rank - may not hold true for the officers. In any case, the officers are far fewer in number. One bureaucrat pointed to the numbers today at Jantar Mantar as an example.

In another part of Delhi, a colonel who retired 15 years back and whose sons are currently serving in the armed forces, says he's reasonably satisfied with his post-retirement emoluments, totalling about Rs 60,000 per month plus subsidised ration and medical facilities. In the time that he was in service, he had managed to buy a plot in south Delhi and has repaid his loans.

This is where the Modi government is now trying to be discriminatory. What applies to the retired dafadar in a Punjab village who left service 33 years ago cannot apply to the Delhi colonel who retired 15 years back. But the politics of the OROP demand is threatening to boomerang on the government. Not only because of the high-decibel election campaign during which it alleged that the UPA governments had not given soldiers' their due but also because Prime Minister Modi, even after taking office, claimed at the Siachen Glacier last year that the demand for OROP "has been fulfilled".

Defence minister Parrikar has estimated that it would cost the exchequer between Rs 8,000 crore and Rs 9,000 crore in the first year. That amount is not in evidence in the budgetary allocations. Finance minister Arun Jaitley subsequently said a re-look was being taken at the formula for calculating OROP.

Between the promise and the claim and the re-look, the PMO has stepped in now. Word is being put out that it will be implemented before the Bihar polls in September-October.

(Source- The Telegraph)

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