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Imagine the surprise and consternation that 58,275 military veterans felt when their monthly pension was not credited at the end of April 2022. Since it was the weekend, the Principal Controller of Defence Accounts (PCDA) (Pensions), Allahabad – the defence pension disbursing authority – helpline was switched off (it only functions Monday-Friday).
The spectrum of affected pensioners ranged from retired Army Commanders to a retired Jawan; no one was spared.
Then suddenly, on May 4, the PCDA sent out a press release in which it said that the reason for not crediting the pensions is that the affected pensioners had not submitted their life certificates. However, the release said that in a show of magnanimity, the ‘pension-master’ would credit the withheld pensions, but warned the erring pensioners to submit the life certificate by May 25.
This classic case of bureaucratic control and apathy came to light despite many ongoing representations by defence pensioners who were being migrated to the System for Pension Administration (Raksha) (SPARSH) – the new and untested (yet, imposed by diktat) pension disbursal system created by the PCDA.
Untested, yet implemented
Any system that is to be implemented in an organisation is, invariably, first tested, then fielded in a small set of the affected target demography, and is only then fully deployed. Not SPARSH, however.
SPARSH is a creation of the Defence Accounts Department (DAD) and was presented to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) as a system that is in line with the Union government’s ‘Digital India’ theme. It was also claimed that SPARSH would save the government around Rs 250 crore annually from the expenses it incurred in disbursing pensions through public and private sector banks which, until now, were distributing defence pensions.
SPARSH itself has been implemented at a cost of Rs 160 crores, therefore, it will be intriguing to compare the amount saved to the burden to the exchequer that will come from wages, allowances and pensions for the DAD staff that will be required to support SPARSH through its envisaged service centres.
Most pensioners settle in rural areas with poor internet connectivity. To expect the not-so-digitally-savvy veteran to handle the elaborate process of registering and using SAPRSH is something that has to be factored in.
This whole migration exercise was apparently done without the recommendation or consent of the defence service headquarters. The old adage, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, clearly wasn’t applied here, in the rush to protect turf and cadre of the DAD, all at the cost of defence pensioners.
It seems curious that the very government departments created to enhance efficacy and provide services to the men and women in uniform somehow always seems to generate a storm in a tea cup when existing systems and norms of the defence forces are challenged and changed overnight.
The recent history of government bureaucracy and the forces
The immediate incident that comes to mind is the storm that was kicked up when erstwhile Raksha Mantri Nirmala Sitharaman had declared that all military cantonment roads would be made open to the public. The decision had come after a meeting with the Department of Defence Estates, reportedly with no military representative present and no view or suggestion of the defence forces considered.
The decision to tax the disability pensions of veterans with medical disabilities attributable to the harsh conditions of military service was yet another bouncer sent down the pitch by the very same Raksha Mantri. Similarly. the One Rank, One Pension (OROP) announcement by successive governments and the ensuing conundrum about its implementation is a typical case in the same vein.
The Tour of Duty idea to reduce the ‘burden’ of defence pensions is, too, rife with serious challenges and is bound to adversely affect the operational efficiency of the defence forces. The list goes on.
The judiciary, too, has not let itself be left behind in making such interventions, as evinced by its decision to grant ‘Permanent Commission’ (PC) to ‘Short Service Commission’ (SSC) female officers of the Indian Army in the ‘Service Arms’ and ‘Combat Support Arms’ streams on the same terms as for male officers.
There is no disputing the need for gender equality and sensitivity in the defence forces, and there are women who serve with pride and who are given due respect by men in uniform. But to carry the equality into combat is something that the defence forces resisted, to no avail.
Yet again, the highest court of the country rammed the decision through and the defence forces are now spending more than the required energies on accommodating women in training establishments and in newer and far more sensitive billets in the field; probably a case of ‘war-fighting being too serious a matter to be left to the military generals’.
There seems to be a perverse delight in these departments and adjunct offices of the MoD in forcing new ideas and schemes on to the defence forces in a manner that is reflective of the overnight ‘shock and awe’ strategy of the government.
These decisions seem to be of the same cloth as those of demonetisation or the announcement of the three contentious farm laws and other ordinances that are rammed through Parliament with little to no debate. These are reminiscent of the military tactics of ‘ram it through’ and then ‘bash on regardless’, ignoring feedback and dismissing criticism as being ‘anti-national’.
The defence forces are always called upon as the nation’s first responders, not only in conflict but also in a myriad of internal security and humanitarian situations. Yet, it is the same lot who are treated with apathy by the MoD and its various adjuncts, whose raison d’etre is to help and support the defence forces in their functioning.
The forces have a strong sense of duty and even stronger mechanisms to bolster morale and fighting efficiency, and it is not that such instances of perceived deceit from the very hands that are to support them go unnoticed by both the serving soldiers and the veterans. In all cases, progressive change is cited as the need of the hour, but there has to be some faith in the defence forces to change and ring in a new, better system.
With a government that touts its muscular side, riding on the defence forces with the stated policy of providing the best them, it may only be fitting for it to obviate such recurring pinpricks.
The need to have defence service representatives in the various departments of the MoD as well as in other ministries which indirectly affect their functioning is the only logical next step and needs to be taken by the government if such glaring anomalies that shake the system and rattle morale are to be avoided.
The idea of the lateral induction of domain experts into government ministries has been mooted and, in some cases, successfully implemented. It’s time to decisively bite the bullet and provide for the lateral induction of well-trained and disciplined servicemen both into government departments and the central police forces.
Major General Amrit Pal Singh (Retd) was Divisional Commander of an Army division in Northern command and Chief of operational logistics in Ladakh (2011 to 2013). He has experience in counter insurgency operations in J&K and conventional operations in Ladakh and is co-author of a book, Maoist Insurgency and India’s Internal Security Architecture.