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Rich Rewards of A Gandhian Mutiny

The ex-servicemen fighting for One Rank, One Pension (OROP) have called off their fast-unto-death but decided to continue their relay hunger strike “till the order to implement OROP is received in black and white.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have hoped that with his announcement on Sunday that pre-mature retirees (PMRs) would be included under the OROP scheme the ex-servicemen protesting at the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi for about three months would go back home shouting “Modi Zindabad” in jubilant mood. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had announced on Saturday that the government had accepted their demand and decided to implement OROP. However, he excluded the PMRs from the likely categories of beneficiaries. This was unacceptable to the ex-servicemen as a very large section of them was composed of PMRs. The ex-servicemen met Parrikar in the evening and later told the media that even he (Parrikar) was intrigued how the clause of exclusion of PMRs had found place in the accepted OROP scheme.  Realizing that the army veterans were never going to accept OROP minus the PMRs, Prime Minister Modi announced their inclusion on Sunday.

Yet the “last minute mischief” of exclusion of PMRs by the “babus” sowed seeds of doubt in the minds of the agitating ex-servicemen whether the top civil servants would allow full and smooth implementation of the Prime Minister’s announcement. This was evident in the statement of Group Captain V K Gandhi, General Secretary of Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement: “Anti-armed forces lobby is active within the government. We still do not want to trust anyone and will continue the relay hunger strike till we get the order in writing.” According to the veterans, 46 per cent of ex-servicemen are PMRs. The clause to exclude the PMRs from OROP, if applied, would have reduced the OROP burden for the government by 50 per cent — about Rs 4000 crore of the estimated Rs 8000-10,000 crore. OROP means that retired soldiers of the same rank and length of service must receive the same pension, regardless of when they retire. As of now, the date of retirement determines the amount of pension. With each Pay Commission coming up with its recommendations every 10 years, the military veterans who retire early receive lesser pension as compared to those who retired later with the same rank and length of service. For example, if OROP is implemented, a sepoy who retired in 2001 would get the same amount of pension as the one who retired in 2002. Under OROP, ex-servicemen who retired before 2006 will benefit most, because they draw lesser pension compared to those in the same rank and even juniors who retired later than 2006.

The UPA government had provided an interim amount of Rs 500 crore for OROP. The Modi government increased it to Rs 1,000 crore. The meagre increase triggered ex-servicemen’s agitation as they reminded Prime Minister Modi of the promise he had made during his election campaign to implement OROP. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar kept on repeatedly making statements reassuring them that all hurdles, including a political clearance on the financial implications of OROP, had been removed. He said the “actual calculation” and “administrative details” were being worked out. “We are sure to get the scheme rolling in the next few weeks,” he said last April. However, the ex-servicemen wanted the government to give them a date from when they would bring in OROP. They suspected that in the guise of resolving ‘technicalities’ the Modi government was procrastinating.

It was this lack of trust that set off their protest at Jantar Mantar. Still the Modi government played elusive. To make it worse, on August 14 the Delhi police made ugly attempts to evict the fasting ex-servicemen from the protest site. A few ex-servicemen were so badly roughed up their shirts were torn and they got bruised. Ill-treatment on the eve of the Independence Day made veterans cry out: “For us it was a Black Independence Day.” Service chiefs wrote to the Prime Minister condemning the manhandling of agitating ex-servicemen by Delhi police. The thoughtless action by Delhi police drew nationwide sympathy for ex-servicemen, leaving the Modi government very little scope for putting off OROP implementation.

However, it was going to mean an additional burden of Rs 10,000 crore for a financially tight government. Modi sent his principal secretary Nripendra Misra to ask ex-servicemen: ““How this (agitation) could be closed?” Officials within the ministry of defence had been against the implementation of OROP, citing financial, administrative and legal impediments. Another factor holding it was the fear that other categories of government employees would also start demanding OROP. There was an apprehension that if OROP was given to PMRs, more and more servicemen would start seeking pre-mature retirement. However, the time for weighing in these adverse factors is up for the Modi government. The ex-servicemen want not to go by promises and announcements but by execution in full of the army pension reforms.

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