The Supreme Court on Monday said the Ministry of Defence cannot take law in its own hands by issuing a communication "unilaterally" that One Rank-One Pension (OROP) arrears to pensioners of the armed forces will be paid in four installments and sought a payment plan by March 20.
Noting that over four lakh pensioners have died since the OROP litigation started in 2016, the court also asked the defence ministry to immediately withdraw its communication and told Attorney General R Venkataramani to prepare a note giving details of the quantum of payment to be paid, the modalities to be adopted and what's the priority segment. The January 20, 2023 communication had said the OROP arrears will be paid in four equal installments to ex-servicemen.
The court observed that the defence ministry's January 20 communication was "directly contrary" to its verdict on March 16, 2022 that had directed payment of complete arrears within three months and it cannot unilaterally say it will pay OROP arrears in four installments.
During the Monday hearing, the attorney general submitted that the Centre has paid to some pensioners and will be paying rest of them one installment of OROP arrears by March 31, but needed some more time for further disbursement.
"First withdraw (your) January 20 notification on payment of OROP arrears, then we will consider your application for time," a bench of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justices PS Narasimha and JB Pardiwala sternly told Venkataramani.
“Mr. Attorney General, the ministry cannot take law in its own hands by issuing such communication on payment of OROP arrears in four installments. This January 20, communication is directly contrary to our verdict." The bench told Venkataramani that the concern of the court is that ex-servicemen get their amount at the earliest and there should not be any delay in payment of the arrears especially those who are above 60-70 years.
"We want that there has to be some kind of categorisation and older people should be paid the arrears first. Over four lakh pensioners have died since the litigation started." It posted the matter for further hearing on March 20 and asked the Centre to file a note by that date giving specific details as asked.
Venkataramani said he is personally in touch with the ministry over the payment of the arrears but the government has to look into the entire fiscal position and that there are several operational hurdles looking at the huge number of 25 lakh ex-servicemen.
"After the tabulation chart was prepared and final vetting by the ministry over seven lakh pensioners have been paid the arrears", he said.
Senior advocate Huzefa Ahmadi, appearing for the ex-servicemen association, said four lakh pensioners have already died during the pendency of the original OROP petition filed in 2016 and the government has been seeking extension of time to pay the arrears time and again.
"This court has upheld that equalization will be held every five years as per the formula of OROP. Now, the ministry wants arrears of 2019 equalization to be made in four installments, which will take it to 2024. Year 2024, will be another year of equalization. I don't want to say much but they have money for other things but don't have money for these ex-servicemen, who are solely dependent on their pensions", he said.
The top court is hearing an application filed by Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement (IESM), through advocate Balaji Srinivasan, in which it has sought setting aside of the defence ministry's January 20 communication.
Meanwhile, the Centre has moved an application seeking modification of the February 27 order, which had asked the Centre to consider recalling of the January 20 communication of the ministry of defence.
"The Controller General of Defence Accounts has on February 20, 2023, informed that they have carried out revision in respect of 11.21 lakh ex-servicemen pensioners and payment of arrears on account of OROP revision has been paid for 7.99 lakh and for rest of pensioners from estimated number of 25 lakh, process is underway for revision and payment of first installment".
It said that an amount of Rs 2,490 crore have been released in February 2023 and credited to 7.99 lakh pensioners and by March 9, 2023, a payment of additional Rs 2,400 crore to approximately 5 lakh pensioners have been made.
"It is submitted that by the end of March, 2023, first phase of the exercise would be completed and pension to the tune of Rs 7,000 crore for approximately 21 lakh eligible ex-servicemen would be credited after revising the pension of all 25 lakh pensioners." The government said that the number of pensioners in whose cases arrears to be dispersed is 25 lakh ex-servicemen and the amount comes to approximately Rs 28,000 crore. Such a huge financial burden in one stroke will disturb the allocation already made for other public purposes which may not be in larger interest of the nation particularly at the fag end of the financial year 2022-23, it added.
It said that the top court in its verdict last year had upheld the OROP formula of the Centre and said that the November 7, 2015 communication does not suffer any constitutional infirmity.
The Centre said that paragraph 3(IV) of the policy communication dated November 7, 2015, evidently brings out the fact that arrears will be paid in four equal half yearly installments except in the case of special/liberalized family pension and gallantry award winners, who shall be paid arrears in one installment.
It said that the government honestly believed that arrears need to be paid in terms of Paragraph 3(IV) of the policy communication dated November 7, 2015. The Centre said that the communication dated January 20, was not issued with any intention even remotely to defy or disrespect or dishonor the orders and directions passed by this court.
It added that there has been a general practice in the government to pay any arrears in instalments as a prudent fiscal measure and it is usually done for DA (Dearness Allowance) arrears and was also part of original OROP policy of 2015 upheld by this court.
On February 27, the top court pulled up the defence ministry over the delay in payment of OROP arrears to eligible pensioners of the armed forces and sought an explanation from the secretary concerned for issuing the communication extending the timeline for payments fixed by the court.
On January 9, the top court granted time till March 15 to the Centre for payment of total arrears of OROP. But on January 20, the ministry issued a communication that the arrears shall be paid in four yearly installments.