By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th Sept 15
The still unresolved, “one rank, one pension” (OROP) agitation has exacerbated the lack of trust between the military on the one hand, and politicians and bureaucrats on the other. In a double defeat for the government, it will pay out at least Rs 18,000-22,000 crore for a settlement, but still leave most ex-servicemen grumbling. That is because the government has misunderstood the nature of the OROP agitation, which is less a demand for money than an expression of outrage at being discriminated against vis-à-vis the cordially disliked Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Many veterans have told me they would accept the status quo on pensions, provided OROP benefits are also withdrawn from the IAS and the Indian Foreign Service (IFS).
But the tiger has tasted blood, given the strong media and public support during the OROP agitation. Already another (morally and logically justifiable) demand is taking shape with armed forces discussion groups buzzing with another long-standing grievance bearing the clumsy moniker of “non-functional upgradation”. NFU, which the government has denied the military, was granted to numerous Group ‘A’ Central Services like the Defence Research & Development Service, Border Roads Organisation, Defence Quality Assurance Service, Indian Ordnance Factory Service, et al. It is only a matter of time before the NFU demand is raised more strongly.
In simple terms, NFU means that when an IAS officer from a particular batch (a batch includes everyone who joins service the same year) is promoted to a certain rank (say deputy secretary), all her batchmates from Group ‘A’ central services automatically start drawing the pay scale of deputy secretary two years after her promotion. This continues all the way up the line. The term NFU implies that, even as those officials continue to discharge their earlier functions, they are upgraded to the higher pay grade of their IAS batchmate. Effectively this means that every central services officer makes it to top pay grades, albeit with a two-year time lag behind the IAS.
You might wonder why the IAS, which safeguards its own interests well by virtue of making the rules, has not awarded itself NFU cover. That is because the IAS does not need NFU since every IAS officer anyway reaches the government’s highest grade of pay, called the “apex scale”, which brings in a salary of Rs 80,000 per month. Even when an IAS officer fails to get empanelled for promotion by the Centre, she continues getting time-scale promotions in her state cadre. When she reaches the rank of “additional chief secretary” in the state cadre, which all of them automatically do, she enters the apex scale. The IFS too benefits from a similar system.
Military officers deeply resent the fact that the IAS and IFS keep getting promoted, regardless of merit and performance. Furthermore, the IAS wangled an order after the 6th Pay Commission that officials drawing salaries in the apex scale would be automatically entitled to OROP. This means that, as successive pay commissions revise the apex scale, as the 7th Pay Commission is currently doing, their pensions would rise in sync. However, 99 per cent of military officers do not make it to the apex scale. For them, each pay commission would separately determine smaller pension raises.
The double benefit to the IAS and IFS --- i.e. apex scale salaries for all, and OROP for all --- is doubly infuriating to the military, whose exceptionally steep promotion pyramid allows only a miniscule percentage of officers to reach the apex scale. Of a hundred army, navy or air force officers in a batch, only 30-40 are selected for promotion to colonel (or equivalent rank in the navy and air force), 10-12 of those go on to become brigadiers, 4-5 become major generals and just one or two make lieutenant general, where apex scales apply. While the military deems this rank hierarchy essential, officers believe they must be covered by NFU, so that those who lose out on promotion do not simultaneously lose out on salaries and pension.
There are significant and obvious disadvantages in being excluded from NFU. A major general posted to army headquarters as an additional director general draws a significantly lower salary than a civilian director serving directly under him. If the major general were to retire in his present rank, his pension would be Rs 5,000 lower than his civilian subordinate, even were the latter to retire on the same date with less service than the general. Every civilian Group ‘A’ central service officer is assured of retiring in at least the “higher administrative grade” pay scale, equivalent to the pay grade of a lieutenant general. In comparison, just one per cent of army officers reach that pay grade.
Yet the defence ministry has flatly turned down NFU for the armed forces, after the military demanded it in 2009-10. The detailed and convincing case mentioned a range of employment-related hardships the military faced, including: legally binding curbs on their fundamental rights, strict disciplinary codes, long separation from families (on average, 67 per cent of their working life for officers and 78 per cent for other ranks), truncated careers, stringent promotion criteria, continuous hazards and threats to life (84 per cent greater likelihood of death in service, when compared to civilian service). Furthermore, the grant of NFU to the IPS but not to the military disturbed the principle of parity between the two that the 3rd, 4th and 5th pay commissions had established.
The defence ministry peremptorily rejected this demand in a brief one-page note written on July 15, 2010. This said the military’s service conditions were different from those of civilians (hardly news to the military, which had cited harsher working conditions in their demand). The ministry argued that the services already got “military service pay” as compensation for difficult working conditions. Finally, stating the obvious again, the ministry declared that NFU was for organised Group ‘A’ services, which the military was not. A right-to-information petition later revealed that no civil servant higher than a joint secretary had considered this demand, which three service chiefs had vetted and cleared.
Like with OROP, the system seems not to be correcting itself until it is pushed to the wall. The 7th Pay Commission is unlikely to extend NFU to the armed forces, since members are protesting that it makes poor economic sense. The army, navy and air force know that is true but will not countenance everybody getting the benefit except for the one that deserves it most, by virtue of having by far the highest percentage of superseded personnel.
The big political question is: what form will the demand for NFU take? OROP was a pension issue, so pensioners did the heavy lifting at Jantar Mantar, the protest site in New Delhi. But how will serving officers demand NFU?
If the central government is frustrated by these complex and interlinked demands, it must blame the deplorable creating of exceptions for the IAS. Avay Shukla, a former IAS officer who blogs on “Hill Post”, noted during the OROP agitation: “The government consists of scores of departments… There are intricate linkages between them: the whole structure is like a huge spider web in which all the strands are inter-connected, and disturbing just one cobweb destabilises the entire structure.”
With the structure already disturbed, can the government restore the status quo ante? Finding a new equilibrium that balances so many actors seems well nigh impossible.