The least of the reasons for granting OROP to the Armed Forces should be that Narendra Modi had made this as his election promise. The country does not belong to Mr Modi. OROP has many things in its favour, but this cannot be one.
In every country, regardless of their style of government, the armed forces occupy a special place of pride and aspiration for the citizens. Their role and place in society is determined by that country’s own history, culture and ethos. All democracies strive for the delicate balance among different elements of State power. Countries which get this balance right, regardless of their size, are respected within and without. Their citizens prosper as they live liberal, democratic values. Others, and there are many examples in our own neighborhood, have shrunken, wary societies forever one spark, or, one imagined slight away from a catastrophe.
India, unique among the postcolonial countries of Asia and Africa, has managed this balance rather well. The aberrations have been few, of relatively small significance. The ‘million mutinies’ could be largely contained on account of the ‘feel good’ factor that attended our gaining of Independence and the unmistakable growth in prestige, power and respect over subsequent years. The steady, even-handed management of the economy, the visible impact of reduction in poverty, the role of our diasporas, the contribution of our cultural ambassadors, and the unalloyed regard for the Indian Armed Forces at home and overseas have all played their part. Maturity of our early leadership – political and military- also played a role in laying down healthy conventions and systems that have endured.
This is now straining, and the OROP issue threatens to derail it.
A crisis that was coming
The crisis has been some decades in the making. At least since the 3rd Pay Commission in 1973, successive governments have acquiesced to the civil bureaucracy quietly feathering their own nests in the matter of pay scales and pensions, to the pronounced disadvantage of the armed forces. Along with this is the dysfunctional structure of the Ministry of Defence which places the Services below the bureaucracy, thus inevitably impacting the attractiveness of a career in the armed forces. Manning levels, efficiency and fighting readiness of the armed forces invariably get reduced. True, the forces do rise to challenges – in Kargil with reduced artillery ammunition availability, or further back in our history, when 4th Indian Division troops moved from Ambala and marched to Se La at 14000 ft in cotton uniforms and rubber shoes. But this cannot be allowed to be the norm; certainly not for an aspiring super power with a three trillion dollar economy. The politician and the civil service stand indicted. Tragically, even the uniformed bureaucracy too has to answer why they did not raise any red flags when it could have made a difference
Today OROP has acquired a larger-than-life, inflexible profile that seems to defy any common sense approach. The government finds itself between the proverbial rock and hard place. But this is not about difficulties the government faces. In the larger scheme of things governments are expendable as are individual leaders. The nation is not.
Tragically, even were OROP to be granted today and the complex financial, administrative and legal issues faced up to, it would not be enough. The counter factual must be answered. Were each veteran to have an additional few thousand rupees in his or her bank account, would it result in a more effective force in keeping with the nation’s aspirations? Would it help in restoring an ideal balance among the different organs of the State? On the other hand, would it inflame demands from other uniformed services, or the Railways or the Oil sector employees to name only a few – to the detriment of their efficiency? Pension payments are particularly tricky because they endure for long periods and entail steadily increasing financing. They represent payments made from the budget (a) to those who have left their productive years behind and (b) from the productive capabilities of those who are still contributing. History tells us the fate of nations who have got the pension equation wrong, and Greece is only the latest.
Surprisingly, no complete analysis of the implications of granting or, not granting, OROP appears to have been carried out. Not even by those most impacted, the Armed Forces themselves.
An emotive issue
Discussion about OROP is largely emotive, which is never a good basis for rational decision making. By now the armed forces should have themselves offered, with a sense of responsibility, workable options. Is OROP the only way? Can the same end results be achieved by other methods? Enhancing military pensions to 70% of last pay instead of the uniform 50% for all government employees? Lateral absorption into Para military forces? Incentives to corporate houses to employ ex-Servicemen? Let the Services leadership take the lead in involving the best minds in the country – from the fields of finance, economics, legal, military science to offer well crafted, reasoned counter to the jumbled signals emanating from government. They owe this to the institution they are proud to have served. They must not shy away from getting their hands dirty and must plunge into the fray. They will thereafter need to work systematically and patiently to ‘sell’ their proposal to the veterans on the one hand and the government on the other, because, obviously, no one solution can possibly satisfy every stakeholder. These leaders do not have the luxury of not mediating or of walking out because the gap is too wide! This is precisely when men of good mind, commitment and strong loyalty to their Organization and to the country are most needed.
OROP has probably reached a point of no return. The nation cannot afford OROP not to be agreed to. But, not because of an election promise.
The writer is a retired Army officer