October 6, 2022

From ‘Charan Sparsh’ to SPARSH and RPSN (Part I)

In July 2021, media reported that the Ministry of Defence has implemented SPARSH, an integrated system for automation of sanction and disbursement of defence pension. SPARSH envisages establishment of Service Centres to provide last mile connectivity to pensioners who may be unable to directly access the SPARSH portal for any reason.

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

Attending the ‘Vijay Parv Samapan Samaroh’ on December 14, 2021, to mark the  50th anniversary of India’s victory in the 1971 Indo-Pak War, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh met Ms. Dhanno Devi, wife of 1971 War veteran Colonel Hoshiar Singh (decorated with Param Vir Chakra), and touched her feet – performing Charan Sparsh. Great gesture!

Earlier on November 18, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the revamped Rezang La War Memorial at the site where Indian troops had fought the Chinese in 1962. Singh described the monument as an example of the determination and indomitable courage displayed by the Indian Army that he said is not “only immortal in the pages of history, but also beats in our hearts”. He was photographed personally pushing the wheelchair of veteran Brigadier RV Jatar of 13 Kumaon who had fought at Rezang La. Another great gesture!

In July 2021, media reported that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has implemented SPARSH, an integrated system for automation of sanction and disbursement of defence pension. SPARSH envisages establishment of Service Centres to provide last mile connectivity to pensioners who may be unable to directly access the SPARSH portal for any reason.

The media report said that in addition to “several offices” of the Defence Accounts Department already functioning as Service Centres for pensioners, State Bank of India (SBI) and Punjab National Bank (PNB) have been co-opted as Service Centres. An agreement to this effect was signed between officiating Controller General of Defence Accounts (CGDA) Rajnish Kumar and officials of SBI and PNB, in the presence of Defence Secretary Dr. Ajay Kumar in New Delhi. Kumar said that implementation of SPARSH fulfilled a long pending requirement and that the decision will prove to be a boon for defence pensioners.

On occasion of the Armed Forces Veterans Day, the Defence Minister said, “I am happy to announce the setting up of Raksha Pension Shikayat Nivaran (RPSN) portal designed to dedicatedly redress pension, including pension-related grievances of ESM and their dependents for speedy redressal. The portal will enable pensioners to lodge grievances directly with the DESW.” He also announced that the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (DESW) has allotted Rs. 320 crore to Armed Forces Flag Day Fund (AFFDF) to clear all backlog of pending applications for welfare schemes, especially education and marriage grants for widows or dependent children of ESM.   

“I am happy to announce the setting up of Raksha Pension Shikayat Nivaran (RPSN) portal designed to dedicatedly redress pension, including pension-related grievances of ESM and their dependents for speedy redressal. The portal will enable pensioners to lodge grievances directly with the DESW”

-Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on occasion of the Armed Forces Veterans Day

History shows that politicians in India respect Armed Forces only in times of war or during elections while the bureaucrats hold the Armed Forces always in contempt. Notwithstanding this and the magic wand Singh has twirled that seemingly will make all woes of pensioners vanish chhooo mantar, someone has suggested that the BJP should spring a surprise by making Singh the Prime Minister after Modi; demonitising dissent within its hierarchy with Amit Shah and Gadkari frowning over Yogi Adityanath being projected as Modi’s successor and Sitharaman praying for the judiciary to rule that the next Prime Minister must be a woman on gender equality basis.  

But what is behind DESW allotting Rs. 320 crore to AFFD to clear the backlog of pending application for welfare schemes – backlog since when? What about donations being asked for on Armed Forces Flag Day, as was the practice earlier? What is the source of DESW funds – is it the pensions denied to veterans, disabled and widows who are fighting their cases in court, some giving up litigation for lack of funds or in disgust and others dead and gone?

Is this Rs. 320 crore part of the elections nautanki? Have we dispensed with the ceremony of the Prime Minister and Defence Minister being presented with the flag and sporting it on their lapels on Armed Forces Flag Day? Doesn’t it appear so in the current era of high-end optics?

As to the execution of SPARSH, which is to be completed over next few weeks, closer examination is required taking into consideration the following:

  • Is the network of Service Centres to expand the network of PCDA, where are these Service Centres coming up, and will they cover all India in a manner that they are in easy reach of all pensioners?
  • If SBI and PNB can function as Service Centres, why not all banks that have accounts of individual pensioners?
  • Obviously, the government was not ‘paying’ any money to the banks for the services provided in the previous system, so what was wrong with the previous system? Why this half-cock arrangement to expand and benefit the PCDA?
  • Bulk of the veterans, disabled and widows especially JCOs and soldiers live in villages and most do not possess laptops or androids. Many villages do not have cybercafés for pensioners to take up their grievances and cybercafés are not free either. How much will SPARSH help the pensioners?
  • With 60,000 personnel retiring annually from the Army alone, how are pensioners supposed to access SPARSH from the Service Centres or SBI/PNB – how long the waiting lines will be including the widows and the disabled? Isn’t it the banks from where they draw their pension every month and have direct contact that can help the veterans, widows and the disabled? 
  • How many service points will a Service Centre have for the pensioners to log on to SPARSH? SBI and PNB will unlikely have more than one. Can the fallout be visualised?
  • Has any thought been given to the widows and the disabled? With PCDA (Pensions) not being easily approachable even on telephone, where are these categories of people expected to get their problems solved – Allahabad? The most heinous part has been PCDA employees asking for personal favours when approached by widows to release their pension, as reported in the past; so much for charan sparsh!
  • A survey may surprise the high and mighty that even veteran officers in metros prefer to deliver their annual life certificate by hand to the pension bank, and why?  
  • Wasn’t the government portal for filing income tax returns dysfunctional and with glitches for several weeks during 2021, embarrassing the Union Finance Minister as well? Take the case of a pensioner, widow, disabled waiting long in line and logging on at the Service Centre only to discover it doesn’t work.

A post on social media reads: “Knowing the soldiers, their families and the responsiveness of PCDA (Pensions), SPARSH at this point of time will create more problems for veterans than before. As of today, PCDA (Pensions) have not even been able to solve existing issues of veterans, their families and the disabled.”

A post on social media reads: “Knowing the soldiers, their families and the responsiveness of PCDA (Pensions), SPARSH at this point of time will create more problems for veterans than before. As of today, PCDA (Pensions) have not even been able to solve existing issues of veterans, their families and the disabled.”

Another post reads: “When will the Indian bureaucracy comprehend the management of Armed Forces and pensioners? Why are they in this business of distributing pensions when banks with its branches spread out throughout the country are available? Whose brainchild? Who is benefiting?

Yet another relevant post reads: “Don’t know what inspires the babudom to make receiving minuscule pension or family pension as difficult as possible for no reason. It is easy to get ideas sitting in air-conditioned offices without realising the ground realities and what difficulties it will create. As it is there are numbers of pensioners knocking at the doors of justice. Now the number will increase manifold and you can guess who will benefit?”

More in Part II, which is the concluding article.

The author is a veteran of the Indian Army. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in

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