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Wednesday, October 4, 2017
Raksha Mantri kindles hope :: Issues concerning personnel policies and mechanism for redressal of grievances under MoD need to be reset
Raksha Mantri kindles hope
The appointment of Nirmala Sitharaman as Raksha Mantri was welcomed by all. Though a lot has been said about procurement of the machine, not much thought is spared for the men and women behind that machine.
Beyond issues such as acquisition that appear glamorous for the world to write upon, it is also the human capital, personnel policies and mechanisms of redressal of grievances under the Ministry of Defence and the military which require focus, and these, softly put, need a refit. The last full-time Raksha Mantri, Manohar Parrikar, made genuine efforts to tame this unruly horse and there is no doubt Ms Sitharaman, known to be a hardworking, upright and sensitised personality, would now carry the work forward. Sensing opportunity at the non-availability of the political executive at the helm after Parrikar’s departure, the system had reverted back to its much-cherished status quoist attitude. Parrikar had constituted independent Committees of Experts comprising apolitical specialists rendering pro bono inputs — one this author, too, was part of, to look into long pending issues plaguing the Ministry and the military, but despite the acceptance of many important and path-breaking recommendations, the Ministry is yet to issue implementation instructions.
At one time, not so much in the past, more than ninety per cent of appeals pending in the Supreme Court filed by the Ministry of Defence pertained to challenges to disability benefits granted by Courts and Tribunals to disabled soldiers. Most of the other litigation also comprises pensionary issues pertaining to old soldiers and military widows. Strange are the ways of the Ministry which challenges orders of Courts at times amounting to a few hundred rupees of benefits to disabled soldiers till the highest court of the land, despite the law being well settled by Constitutional Courts. In fact, stress and strain of military service is universally known to aggravate even regular medical conditions such as hypertension and heart disease, thereby adversely affecting the health profile and longevity of soldiers, and the same is also recognised by the applicable rules. But accountants and financial authorities of the Ministry feel that soldiers should not be compensated for their health conditions since many such disabilities occur in civil life too. However, what they forget in the bargain is that — living away from the family for most part of the year, the inability to attend to domestic commitments, a highly regimented lifestyle with curbs on freedoms that other citizens take for granted — are aspects unique to the military, and which, even by the admission of successive Raksha Mantris, lead to additional stress and strain. This Ministry must be the only one where consecutive Supreme Court decisions on the subject, rules, directions of Ministers, opinions of apex military medical bodies, recommendations of high-level committees et al have had no effect and the show is run by a motley crew of accountants, financial wizards, and mischief by certain file-noting initiators.
Along with pensionary policies, the personnel stratagems of the military also need a revisit. Though, over past few years the rigidity of thought in the military has shown a decline and it has become less inward-looking, a humongous task lies ahead to improve satisfaction level in this very important department. Affected parties need to be consulted in policy-making after a holistic and scientific analysis, and these cannot be imposed in a ham-handed manner based on the whims or opinions of a select few. Such an approach has led to massive litigation, discontentment and administrative chaos in the past which then reflects upon the working relationship of the various cogs in the wheel. Similarly, the military needs to look within and acquire a more open, pragmatic, fair and progressive approach in grievance redressal. It’s an open secret that most of the serious representations (statutory and non-statutory complaints) are not decided within the prescribed period of six months unless strings are pulled. In a primitive system, the decision-makers seek comments on such representations from those very authorities that are complained against. Recommendations of the Committee of Experts for faster redressal and an opportunity of hearing or personal interaction of the aggrieved party with the competent authority before taking the decision and also for making the process objective by decentralising certain power centres, were accepted in principle by the Raksha Mantri in August 2016 with directions to issue implementation instructions in 45 days, but the files have been put in such an orbit that the execution till date remains elusive.
With an incisive mind now occupying the chair, one would also expect a more balanced decision-making process. Having dealt with it closely, this author would suggest that the higher bureaucracy and political executive must not blindly rely on any developing coterie or one-way file notings since they are drafted in a manner so as to extract a particular kind of response — the kind that the file initiator in the lower bureaucracy wants. Hence, the decision-making process needs to be collegiate wherein inputs and views of all are taken in a real-time manner and wherein those who have commented on a particular issue on file can be confronted by stakeholders. Also, it is essential to interact with the affected parties in important administrative, personnel, welfare and pension-related subjects to have a well-rounded view.
The Raksha Mantri has given hope to many. Interestingly, the situation today is that while the Minister at the helm of this large ministry remains accessible and replies to emails and tweets, just the opposite attitude is on display at the lower but cutting-edge public-dealing level.
Major Navdeep Singh is a lawyer at the Punjab & Haryana High Court and was founding President of the Armed Forces Tribunal Bar Association. Views expressed are personal.