Kolkata: Napoleon Bonaparte said, an army marches on its stomach. But officers of the Indian Army, Air Force and Navy posted at peace stations will no longer get a promised perk - daily rations. In fact, rations have stopped since July 1. Instead, they will get an allowance of Rs 96.03 per day credited into their bank accounts. The 7th Pay Commission has stipulated this.
The move has outraged many of the 80,000-odd defence officers. One serving colonel has sent a legal notice to the government warning he will go to court if the order is not rolled back by August 30. Top retired generals, including a former Army chief, have condemned the move as it humiliates officers and will drive a wedge between them and jawans.
There is a counterview. Why, some say, should officers get rations after huge hikes in salary in the 7th Pay Commission. Others point to Comptroller and Auditor General or CAG reports of huge corruption in procurement and distribution of rations. Some Army officers have told NDTV's Defence Editor Vishnu Som that the end of rations is no big loss.
But General VP Malik, former Chief of Army Staff, said, "I have not heard from any officer that now that we are getting more salary, we don't need rations. But I have heard a large number of serving officers say, why has this been suddenly taken away? I have seen disappointment among serving officers. There is a lot of resentment."
Lt Gen John Ranjan Mukherjee who retired as chief of Eastern Command and once headed 15 Corps in Jammu and Kashmir spoke even more plainly.
"I will be frank and blunt. I think it is a wrong step by the government. Morally wrong and it contributes to driving a wedge between the officers and the other ranks. The men are beginning to feel the government no longer trusts the officer cadre and is purposely driving a wedge," he said.
"That is a dangerous phenomenon because the Army needs to fight as a team. The armed forces need to fight as a team. If the government continues to follow the policy of divide and rule, it means trouble for the country, from the point of view of national security and the morale of the Army."
Ever since the 7th Pay Commission put it in black and white, officers are seething.
The allowance under discussion was RMA or Ration Money Allowance.
The 7th Pay Commission recommended, "Provision of free rations and the grant of Ration Money Allowance to officers of Defence Forces posted in peace areas should be withdrawn."
What the government modified and accepted was "Provision of free ration for officers of Defence Forces shall be discontinued in peace areas. RMA shall continue to be paid to officers ...posted in peace areas. The cash shall be credited directly into the bank accounts of officers."
Colonel Mukul Dev, deputy judge advocate general in the judicial service, now posted in Jodhpur, has written to the centre. He was promised free ration as a perk when he joined, he pointed out. If the ration ban is not rolled back by 30 August, he will go to court for breach of contract.
His lawyer, retired Col Rajiv Manglik, said, "You must be aware that a prisoner in the jail is authorized a ration money of Rs. 137 per day and an Army officer is authorized only Rs. 96 per day. Are Army officers even worse than the prisoners? Or they are Bonded Labors?"
There are more counter-arguments, however, besides hike in salaries. Serving officers who are bound not to speak publicly have told NDTV that often rations were not used and they can now afford better quality to meet stipulated calorie intake. And corruption, the CAG report of 2016 says, was serious and even pulled up the Army Supply Corps that deals with procurement and distribution of rations.
Officers say malpractices must be punished and plugged. But why punish 80,000 officers for the misdemeanours of a few? As for calorie needs, officers are required to have a daily calorie intake of 1800 to 2000, That is just not possible in Rs 96.03.
Gen "Jolly" Mukherjee, as John Ranjan Mukherjee is known, goes a step further. "It is not a question of 96 rupees or 2- 3 hundred rupees worth of ration...throw it out the window...when I was commissioned ...we didn't have it....but having granted it...taking it away in this fashion ...and denigrating them by the government is unforgivable."
Col Mukul Dev who complained has been show caused and a legal battle seems on the cards. But the dispute is an emotive one. And its impact could well be felt in real battlefields.