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The Defence Accounts Department (DAD), which has long been the favoured bête noire of a growing number of media-savvy service personnel, was once again in focus earlier this month over the three-day ‘delay’ in disbursing pensions for April 2022 to 58,759 military retirees.
They are among the 4.79 lakh pensioners who were recently ‘migrated’ by the DAD to an automated pension sanction-cum-disbursement programme called ‘System for Pension Administration Raksha’, or SPARSH. This digitised pay-out programme managed by the Principal Controller of Defence Accounts (Pensions), or PCDA(P), in Prayagraj, has been designed to cover all pension-related matters.
The fact that another 120,000-odd pensioner also failed to receive their remittances on time mattered little to those in the vanguard of the media campaign against the DAD as they were yet to switch over to SPARSH. The responsibility for calculating and disbursing the monthly pension to these pensioners continues to be with the Pension Disbursing Authorities (PDAs) that mostly comprise local banks, and not with the DAD.
After years of planning, SPARSH was introduced by the DAD in four phases between October 2020 and August 2021. Around 5.13 lakh of the total 33-odd lakh defence pensioners, including 4.79 ‘legacy’ pensioners who had retired before SPARSH was introduced, have so far been transferred to SPARSH. The 58,759 ‘victims’ of the delayed pension pay-outs were a part of this group of pensioners.
What transpired was certainly not due to any flaw in the SPARSH programme or a technical glitch, as some campaigners have averred in newspaper articles. The problem arose because either the pensioners themselves had failed to submit their Life Certificates which need to be mandatorily submitted by each pensioner – civil or military – each November, or if they had submitted to the bank branches or other agencies from where they are drawing pension, these did not get linked with their pension account in the SPARSH database for reasons that aren’t immediately clear.
For 2021, the deadline for the Certificate’s submission was officially extended, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, initially to December 2021 and then to February 2022. Thereafter, in accordance with the stipulated guidelines, pension of those who had not submitted was to be stopped in March 2022.
However, cutting them some slack, the DAD deferred the decision to do that, and through painstaking efforts that included contacting every conceivable office where pensioners could possibly have deposited their Certificates, brought down the number of those whose Life Certificates were unavailable from around 3.3 lakh to 58,759 by end April 2022 when the pension for that month became due for disbursement. At the latest count, this number stands at 33,058.
Critics also disregarded the fact that the DAD took just one working day -excluding the intervening Sunday and the holiday for Eid- to decide on releasing the withheld pensions to these 58,759 pensioners despite what the rules stipulate. Consequently, the DAD was disheartened by the angry outburst that followed.
The faultfinders have assailed SPARSH on four counts – that its incipient software has been ‘foisted upon’ hapless pensioners, it’s hugely expensive-costing Rs 158 crores – and largely inaccessible, especially across rural India where Internet connectivity is weak, and lastly, that the project was infructuous. All these apprehensions are misplaced.
SPARSH has been developed by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) that is ranked second among IT companies globally. Operating in 149 locations across 46 countries, TCS can surely be trusted by the naysayers to handle such a project. Certainly, a company of this standing, or even the DAD, does not need tutoring in computerisation.
DAD’s credentials in digitising its operations are impressive. It was one of the first government departments to computerise its workings, albeit to a limited extent, in the 1960s via cumbersome Hollerith machines at its offices in Meerut, before expanding its digital footprint over the following decades. Many of the programmes crafted inhouse by the DAD are currently still in use and comprise the backbone of its financial management system.
SPARSH’s project cost of Rs 158 crore is anything but expensive, constituting 0.13% of the overall defence pensions budget of Rs 1,19,696 crore. This cost has anyway been docked to the DAD’s running expenses and not to the pensions budget. Besides, of this total cost, some Rs 68 crore has been expended on installing hardware, Rs 10 crore on software development and the remaining Rs 70 crore has been allocated to servicing the project till 2027.
Secondly, the bogey of poor Internet connectivity is ironic given the impending nationwide introduction of 5G communication networks. Moreover, no pensioner has to personally execute any operation on the SPARSH portal for sanction and disbursement of pension, obviating all hurdles of veterans being technologically challenged. As for grievance redressal, or any other assistance needed for tracking the sanction or disbursement of pensions, the DAD has instituted an elaborate resolution network.
This comprises 4.5 lakh Common Service Centres of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology spread across the country, down to the level of each 6,614 Gram Panchayats which provide varied services. This network is further supplemented by 197 Regimental Record and other DAD Offices and more than 800 branches of two public and one private sector banks with many more expected to pitch in.
By the time SPARSH is fully implemented, all veterans will be able to receive assistance regarding their pensions within a 5 km radius of their homes. Expectedly, this service will come at a price, but reliable sources indicate that this may be no more than Rs 10 crore annually, significantly less than the Rs 200-odd crore that is presently paid each year to banks as service charges for disbursing pensions.
The apprehension that the DAD wants to expand its empire to ‘dominate’ the armed forces with its financial clout is equally outlandish, as the strength of the DAD’s 64-odd Defence Pension Disbursement Offices, which will also function as service centres, is likely be halved with SPARSH gaining ascendency.
The averment by veterans that SPARSH is inadequate betrays ignorance and an inherent bias against DAD. As always, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating and SPARSH has, so far, amply vindicated itself. It has reduced the average time taken for sanctioning pensions to current retirees from four months to just 17 days, for disbursement of the first payment of gratuity and commuted pensions from one month to 1-2 days, and grievance redressal from 30 days to merely 3-4 days.
Amit Cowshish is a former financial advisor (acquisitions), Ministry of Defence.