Decoding OROP and the Politics at Play

In his latest Mann ki Baat radio broadcast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated his government's commitment to implementing the one rank one pension (OROP) scheme for the armed forces. Noting that this was a "complex issue, vexed issue", he asked ex-servicemen and soldiers to give him more time to address the matter.

OROP is apparently one more issue where the expectations raised by Mr Modi cannot easily be met. The Prime Minister's statement came against the backdrop of growing disquiet among ex-servicemen. They rightly observe that just a couple of months back, during his visit to the Siachen Glacier, Mr Modi had claimed that OROP "has been fulfilled". At the same time, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has insisted that OROP is "on its way", though he has refused to give a specific timeline for implementation.

All this has led the retired soldiers to wonder if the government is attempting to row back from or dilute its pledge. Their response, however, has been excessively sharp. Last week, two war veterans refused to be felicitated by the Defence Minister in protest against the delay in implementing OROP. Senior representatives of the Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement (IESM), which is leading the campaign for OROP, have described the delay as "breach of trust" and "betrayal". Widespread protest and relay hunger strikes are planned to be launched in various parts of the country on 14 June. It is not surprising that Mr Modi felt impelled to bring up this issue.

Yet the Prime Minister's own comments may have muddied the waters on this issue. In a recent interview to the Tribune, he noted that there were "varied versions about what the definition of OROP should be" and that sorting these out was taking time.

In fact, there should be no doubt about what OROP means. It is the working out of the nitty-gritty details that is tedious and time consuming. The principle of OROP is straightforward: soldiers retiring at the same rank and after the same length of service should receive the same pension. This implies that the gap in the pension received by current pensioners and older pensioners must be bridged. It also means that any future increases in the rate of pension should automatically be passed on to past pensioners.

The demand for OROP stems from several reasons. For one, the principle of OROP was actually in existence until the Third Pay Commission of 1973. Thereafter, the government decided to apply pension rules for civilian employees to the armed forces as well. The removal of OROP led to continuous petitions from retired soldiers to successive governments. A series of committees examined the issue from the early 1980s onwards, but it led to little more than a tinkering of rates of pension for ex-servicemen and their families.

A second, and related, reason is that military personnel typically do not serve for as long as their civilian counterparts. Owing to the steep pyramidal structure of promotions in the armed forces, the bulk of the soldiers retire between the ages of 38-40 while most officers have to retire at 55. Unlike civilian employees - who are eligible to serve until 60 - those joining the armed forces have effectively to forego several years' income.

Further, there is a subtle sociological dimension to the demand for OROP. The individual and collective identities of soldiers, whether serving or retired, are shaped around rank and organizational standing. The fact that a senior retired officer may draw much less pension than an officer who retired later but at a junior rank is an important driver of discontent.

Finally, the decision to equate civilian and military personnel does scant justice to the special conditions of military life. This is not just about the greater hardships and danger in the latter, but also the fact that soldiers operate under an institutional laws and norms that are much more restrictive than those governing the career of civilians.

The growing unrest among ex-servicemen is not merely because this issue has been hanging fire for so long. It also reflects the deep institutional divide between the military and the bureaucracy. From the early years after Independence, there is a feeling in the military that civilian control has translated into civil service control. The bureaucracy's institutional position between the military and the political leadership has been problematic all along. And its stance on OROP has been perceived as inimical to the armed forces' interests.

This perception is not entirely without foundation. In the past, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has opposed the restoration of OROP on several grounds. While their concerns about the financial implications were understandable, they also cited several specious administrative and legal hurdles.

For instance, while testifying before a parliamentary committee in 2011, a senior MoD official claimed that implementing OROP would be difficult as records of defence pensioners were discarded after 25 years. This was patently absurd and false. In fact, it is the record of non-pensioners that are destroyed after 25 years.

Similarly, the official claimed that extending current pay and service benefits to past pensioners would amount to discrimination under the constitution. In fact, the Supreme Court had already ruled in 2009 that OROP should be granted to the armed forces. Equally untenable is the argument that OROP for the military would necessitate similar concessions to the paramilitary and civilian services. In both those cases, personnel tend to serve until the age of 60 - very unlike the armed forces. Of course, the position of the MoD has changed in the last year and a half. Yet doubts about the bureaucracy's obstructionism loom large in the minds of the ex-servicemen.

The issue of OROP not only threatens to widen the gap between the military and the bureaucracy, but has other potential implications as well. Opposition parties have jumped into the fray, sensing an opportunity to embarrass the government. The Defence Minister has rightly requested that this issue should not be politicized. Yet his own party shares the blame for the ongoing politicization. After all, it was Mr. Modi who picked this issue to attack the UPA government with during the last general election and claimed that only his party understood the interests of the armed forces.

More worrying is the increasingly political stance of the ex-servicemen themselves. Major General (retired) Satbir Singh of the Indian Ex Servicemen Movement (IESM) has claimed, "We the ex-servicemen supported him [Narendra Modi] and played an important role in bringing the BJP in power." Soldiers like citizens are free to exercise their choice in the ballot box. But it is disastrous for associations of ex-servicemen to rely on the patronage of any political party. In making the case of OROP, retired soldiers have emphasized the bond between retired and serving soldiers, and the consequent need to have sound policies for ex-servicemen.

However, these links and circuits of influence stretch to other issues too. Can serving soldiers be insulated from the partisan politics to which groups like IESM are now resorting? This could easily pave the way for the politicization of the armed forces.

The dignity of the military rests in dealing with the government of the day as an institution of the state and not as a political party in power. It is therefore incumbent upon ex-servicemen not only to steer clear of partisan politics, but also to take the Prime Minister at his word and give him time to work out the details.

At the same time, the government should also realize that there must be some grace in the giving.

(Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

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