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Belated bounty for veterans in poll run-up
- ‘One rank, one pension’ announcement a gimmick, say rivals; services doubt sincerity of govt

New Delhi, Feb. 17: The politics of reaching out to nearly three crore voters may have led to the announcement of “one rank, one pension” (OROP) for veteran soldiers but both the ex-servicemen and those serving in the forces feel the government still has a long way to go.

Finance minister P. Chidambaram has proposed voting in Rs 500 crore for the scheme within this fiscal. This has made the possibility of veterans seeing enhanced amounts in their pension slips on April 1, probably days before they vote.

This comes after Rahul Gandhi met veterans in Haryana last week and also after Narendra Modi attended a rally of ex-servicemen along with former army chief General V.K. Singh at Rewari early on in his campaign.

OROP is aimed at bringing in parity in the pensions of soldiers. Unlike other central services, most soldiers do not serve till the age of 58 or 60 years. Depending on rank, officers may retire after 20 years of service. Soldiers below officer rank may retire at the age of 38. Between 45,000 and 50,000 soldiers from the army alone retire every year.

The total number of ex-servicemen in the country is estimated at 24 lakh. A total of 14 lakh serve in the armed forces. OROP will also cover an estimated 6 lakh soldier widows. Soldiers who have retired before 2006 (fifth pay commission) earn pensions that are much less than those who retired post 2006.

For example, a major general who retired in, say, the year 2000, may be drawing a pension that is less than a colonel who retires now despite having served for a longer tenure and achieved a higher rank. Under OROP, this will be evened out. Meaning soldiers of the same rank at the time of retirement will draw the same amount as pension irrespective of the year of their superannuation.

The government and the Congress have highlighted OROP as a big achievement. Even the BJP has welcomed the move though it says Rahul is trying to claim copyright over something Modi had patented.

“The issue of One Rank One Pension has been addressed comprehensively and I’m confident that our Forces, Officers & Jawans will welcome this,” the Prime Minister’s Office tweeted today.

“A number of delegations have met me on the one rank, one pension (issue) in last many days. All of them said it is a very necessary and historic step. Our forces are always ready to fight for the nation and people. It is our duty that we provide them all support,” Rahul said.

“I thank the government, the Prime Minister and the Congress president for taking this historic step. Our government is fully behind them. They always stand behind the nation,” he told journalists.

But doubts linger within the services and among the veterans on the sincerity of the announcement that the government “has accepted the principle of one rank one pension for the defence forces”.

The services’ estimate based on a deposition by the expenditure secretary to the Rajya Sabha is that the government would have to allocate Rs 1,800 crore to implement the scheme. But it has committed only Rs 500 crore.

“UPA has made promises for others to keep. 1rank1pay is too late with too small an outlay. (sic) A gimmick on our brave soldiers,” tweeted Derek O’Brien of the Trinamul Congress. Bengal has one of the largest numbers of ex-servicemen.

Back-of-the-envelope calculations in the services’ headquarters have not really enthused officers.

“This is a shameful act by the Congress government,” said Lt General (retired) Shankar Prasad. “They have known for 10 years that the demand for OROP is legitimate. We had surrendered our medals to the President in support of the demand. But they make such an announcement only just before the election. It means they accepted the legitimacy of the demand but still did not do anything about it for so long,” he said.

A defence ministry official said the allocation of Rs 500 crore “was only a beginning”. The contours of the scheme will be rolled out in a few weeks.

“It is a step in the right direction, though belated,” said Major General (retd) Satbir Singh, who is one of the leaders of the Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement.

Defence allocation

Chidambaram has budgeted Rs 224,000 crore for defence. This is about 12.7 per cent of the total central government expenditure.

Though the allocation is a 10 per cent rise over last year’s, it barely covers for inflation and the rise in dollar’s price. Most military hardware is imported.

A total of Rs 89,588 crore has been earmarked as capital expenditure — funds to contract new equipment. The defence allocations are 1.74 per cent of the GDP.