By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th Dec 15
With the appointment of a one-man judicial commission to look into the implementation of the One Rank, One Pension (OROP) scheme for ex-servicemen, the government has tried in vain to signal flexibility in resolving this vexed dispute.
On Monday, the defence ministry (MoD) named Justice L Narasimha Reddy, retired chief justice of the Patna High Court, as the head of the one-man commission.
A MoD release says the committee will make recommendations on “removal of anomalies that may arise in the implementation of the OROP”, which the government notified on November 7. It will also address inter-service anomalies, and “any other matter referred by the Central Government.”
In the OROP agitation, veterans are demanding identical pensions for all those who retire at the same rank, with the same length of service. Ex-servicemen argue they performed the same job in service and must make ends meet in identical economic conditions today.
Before OROP, veterans who retired in earlier years when salaries were lower got far lower pensions than those retiring today. A pension, which is payable for life, and then at half rate to a veteran’s widow, amounts to half the salary drawn on the date of retirement.
On September 5, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar announced OROP, but the ex-servicemen agitation continued, with their leaders discontent with the implementation.
Now the Justice Reddy commission has six months to submit its recommendations on issues that will be raised before it. It may also submit interim reports, if necessary.
Ex-servicemen bodies at the forefront of the agitation, like the United Front of Ex-Servicemen (UFESM), first cautiously welcomed, then rejected, the commission.
Colonel (Retired) Anil Kaul, media head of the UFESM told Business Standard: “The commission provides an additional forum for redressing veterans’ grievances against the OROP award. We don’t want to go to court unnecessarily; if the judicial commission can resolve our issues, that would be the best course.”
But a statement put out later by the UFESM took a far stronger line, rejecting the judicial commission since the UFESM had earlier recommended the commission should have 3-5 members, including two ex-servicemen. Now, for the first time, the UFESM talked openly about legal redress.
“The way forward is to approach the SC (Supreme Court) which would be taken proceduraly (sic) as per the advise (sic) of our counsel Mr Ram Jethmalani very shortly”, said the UFESM in a late-evening statement. Business Standard understands that Jethmalani has offered to represent the ex-servicemen gratis.
The government has sent mixed messages about its willingness to compromise. On December 1, Parrikar met with UFESM leaders and promised to continue finding a settlement. Former army chief and minister of state for external affairs, General (Retired) VK Singh, was nominated as a channel of communication.
The UFESM says that by appointing a judicial commission, “the door kept open with a mediator in the form of Gen VK Singh has been shut on our Face too (sic).”
On Saturday, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, speaking at the Aaj Tak Conclave in New Delhi, had flatly ruled out compromise. Jaitley insisted that most ex-servicemen have gratefully accepted the government’s OROP award, with only “fringe elements” continuing the agitation.
UFESM officeholders say there are two key sticking points in the way of a settlement. First, the OROP award mandates that the pension in each pay grade would be based on the average salary that grade. The UFESM insists pension must be based on the top salary in each scale.
Second, ex-servicemen demand that all pensions be based on salaries as on March 31, 2014. The OROP award bases them on the median salary of calendar year 2013, depriving ex-servicemen of one annual increment.
A third contentious issue --- denying OROP benefits to ex-servicemen who opt in the future for premature retirement --- appears to have been dropped by the UFESM.
Say UFESM leaders, anonymously: “The bill to meet our two demands would be just Rs 3,000 crore, over and above Rs 8,300 crore that the government has put as the annual cost of OROP. Given that just 14 per cent of this would be paid out to officers, and 86 per cent would go to enlisted men, the government should not withhold it.”
The resilience of the UFESM agitation and its on-going programme of rallies across the country have surprised the government.