One Rank, One Pension is in the news again. We hear harsh words being spoken and see sad images of veterans taking to the streets. It cannot be in our national interest to push veterans to a point that they are not distinguishable from Aam Aadmi Party volunteers at Jantar Mantar. Much more is at stake than the apparent Rs 8,300 crore dent on the Consolidated Fund of India. Uniquely amongst our institutions, our armed forces are held in high regard. For India’s sake that must not change.
The crisis is decades in the making. The seeming intransigence of the veterans is a reaction to the hurt that has built up over many years. The gross dysfunctionality of the Ministry of Defence system, combined with the sheer pettiness of the IAS bureaucracy, has led inexorably to this. Fauji sensitivity to status games is not pig-headedness. The pride in the uniform, the regimental izzat developed over years of peace time activities, the attention to protocol are the tools of the soldiers’ trade. They are what economists might call mechanisms. If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, Tiger Hill was surely won in the officers messes and regimental drill squares of India.
The demand for OROP is being articulated as just compensation for a life of extraordinary hardship – in battle and in peace. However, there is another argument in its favor.
Think of OROP in terms of the price for maintaining a young volunteer army. As with any other price, it must reflect the opportunity cost of an alternative. As career opportunities available to young men and women increase, maintaining the attractiveness of a career in the Armed Forces is a cost the nation has to bear. An effective military deterrent is the bedrock of the 10% GDP growth we all wish for.
We must see OROP as part of the larger goal of making the Armed Forces an attractive career choice. Truncated career spans are a huge disincentive to joining the forces today. The figures speak for themselves – a persistent 26% shortage in the office cadre, around 12,000 officers in the sanctioned strength of 46,500 in the Army alone! Add to that the relatively young age at which retirement takes place – at 52 years for most officers and at 37-38 years for most enlisted men – the very points in their lives when family responsibilities are increasing. Why would an alternative career, even if in government, with assured employment till 60 years age not appeal?
In the best of all worlds, the debate we should be having would be about setting up efficient re-training programs to prepare both officers and men for second careers in civvy street – an ITI in every regimental centre, IIM quotas for retiring officers, tax breaks for industries who employ service officers, priority sector lending to those with an entrepreneurial bent. Ex-servicemen helping themselves and helping the economy.
OROP has probably reached a point of no return. The pre- and post-election promises of the new government, which the veterans have been quick to hail and base their maximalist positions on, make it urgent that an immediate solution be found. But the government must use OROP not just as an enforced payout, whatever the amount, but as a trigger to initiate far reaching changes in India’s defence structure.
Only a government with such numbers in Parliament can attempt this ambitious project.
There are two main arguments against grant of OROP to the Services – (a) cost and (b) similar demands by other government employees. If OROP can be considered a part of a bigger plan, it may actually reduce the two problems listed above.
It needs to be designed and presented as a jumping off point for a long due renewal of the Indian Armed Forces.
For ‘OROP plus’ to happen, a clear principle can be established. OROP costs will have to be found from within the existing budget. But the exercise needs to be more than one of just cost cutting. Let the starting point be a White Paper on India’s security challenges. Do we really need a mountain strike corps ? Do we need to build a two-front capacity? Is a 45 fighter squadron Air Force the force level needed? Can we learn from the Navy’s efforts at indigenization? A concurrent restructuring of the MoD to convert it to an integrated defence HQ and appointment of a CDS will release enormous energy. Alongside, a total revamping of the defence procurement systems and we may just find the money needed for OROP.
Properly handled, OROP can be the peg on which a broader transformation can be hung, thus converting it from a cost to an opportunity. Lessons could then be usefully applied to reform the police and paramilitary forces.
Let Prime Minister Modi take up the special challenge of moulding the Armed Forces into an efficient, modern instrument. He should start with a categorical acceptance of the demand but not stop there. He will certainly find more support from across the political spectrum for OROP than he did for Land Acquisition.
J.S. Oberoi is a retired brigadier of the Indian army who lives in Gurgaon