As a parting gift that would presumably fetch some electoral returns from families of ex-servicemen and serving defence personnel, who represent a vocal vote bank in themselves, the UPA-II government has announced the acceptance of the long-pending demand for ‘one rank, one pension’ (OROP) for defence veterans. The removal of anomalies in the pension regime, caused following the Fifth and Sixth Pay Commission awards, is only fair and just. Soldiers of the same rank and same length of service should thus receive a similar quantum of pension, regardless of when they retire. Currently, those who retired before 2006 receive less than their counterparts, even their juniors, retiring later. The scheme will cost an estimated Rs.2,000 crore a year, although the interim budget has made a provision only for Rs.500 crore for the current year. While the details emerge, some scepticism over whether it truly meets the OROP concept or will only provide modified parity in pension, seems to be doing the rounds. But by and large, the decision appears set to benefit some three million defence pensioners from 2014-15. There are 2.4 million retired military personnel in India, besides widow-pensioners and others. In pitching the demand, defence personnel have long argued that they work in a sharply pyramidal system, with retirements coming early on in service unlike their civil service counterparts who serve until the age of 60. While just a few men in uniform make the cut and rise to higher positions in the services, almost every civil servant attains superannuation while at the top of the ladder. This leads to a marked difference in their pensions as well. While other grievances relating to medical and disability benefits and so on remain, OROP is a well-deserved deal for retired defence personnel.
While the concerns of veterans’ welfare are addressed, issues that India’s armed forces are confronted with on the personnel front should not be lost sight of. Just this week, the Standing Committee on Defence in a report tabled in Parliament expressed “dismay” at the shortage of personnel in the armed forces. It noted that the Army has a “record shortage” of 9,384 officers: while the authorised strength is 52,859, it is making do with 43,475 officers. Shortages face the Navy and Air Force as well. In the other ranks, the Army is short of 20,561 personnel, while the Navy is short of 1,561 officers and 11,825 sailors. The Air Force is short of 659 officers and 3,674 Airmen. Shortfalls and gaps in force levels need to be realistically assessed and addressed to meet India’s defence needs. It should also be ensured that armed forces personnel continue to get a morale boost in terms of pay, perquisites, working conditions and career prospects.