October 2, 2022

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

Major changes like SPARSH should have been discussed with Veteran Pensioners and their issues and anxieties could have been addressed before going full hog on this system

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

The issues related to implementation of SPARSH mentioned in Part I relate to ground realities though the policy makers will likely brush them off as resistance to digitisation, which is not. Major changes like SPARSH should have been discussed with Veteran Pensioners and their issues and anxieties could have been addressed before going full hog on this system. Lakhs of defence pensioners are being placed at the hands of outsourcing digital experts, who except for their computer programming naturally are unaware of the ground realities and what difficulties it can create. Witness the difficulties experienced by ESM every time an ECHS card has to be changed and handled by outsourced computer experts.

Incidentally, India ranks 22 in the country-level digital competitive rankings worldwide as of 2022. The US tops the rank at 1, Taiwan ranks 8, the UK ranks 14, China ranks 15 and Russia ranks at 18. So where is the hurry to go after the veterans, widows and the disabled to seek brownie points in digitisation without ascertaining the ground situation and assessing whether it will help them or be retrograde?

The top five risks for India in the just released ‘Global Risk Report 2022’ include: fracture in interstate relations, debt crises, widespread youth disillusionment, failure of technology governance and digital inequality, according to World Economic Forum’s Executive Opinion Survey (EOS). The report draws upon the findings of the EOS and the Global Risks Perception Survey (GRPS) to compile its findings. So, is SPARSH an attempt to bridge digital inequality irrespective of how it will affect the pensioners?

The PCDA has the bluest eyes and no doubt the darling of the politico-bureaucrat nexus. Recall how a sly note from the PCDA scuttled the promise by Arun Jaitley to revise the One Rank One Pension (OROP) after five years – due in 2019, though OROP should have been revised every year. Government named the cricket stadium at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi after Arun Jaitley but did not honour his promise to revise the OROP in 2019. The policy makers were thrilled when Justice L Narasimha Reddy, retired Chief Justice of Patna High Court, heading the one-man commission on OROP thanked them for the Char-Dham Yatra on government expense and red-carpet treatment in multiple military stations as part of his commission, but Reddy’s report submitted to the government was put in the freezer.

The government’s stance is that OROP has already been paid and this is also being used in election slogans, whereas it was a one-time award, not OROP. The Tail Wagging Group (TWG) keeps trying to link OROP with the Seventh (7th   ) Pay Commission but these are entirely separate. The ongoing case of OROP in the Supreme Court and the tarikh pe tarikh (date after date) has become a joke though the judiciary may land up with a Guinness World Record. At the last hearing on January 20 the next date was given as February 2. Interestingly, Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar went on record to say that money is not a problem but then others will also ask for it. He would obviously not mention it is the Armed Forces who were ‘promised’ OROP by the government. 

Meanwhile, the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) headed by Justice K Harilal and Air Marshal SRK Nair as member has ruled on a case filed by 13 Veteran Captains for not being given pension in accordance with OROP. In its ruling dated January 7, the Court has directed the second respondent “to decide on their pension due to these regular Commissioned Officers (COs) as per the anomalies resolved by the Judicial Committee on the OROP scheme, and subject issue of Government of India letter, to disburse pension at the entitled rate of these retired Captains. Since this exercise is likely to be time consuming, and also considering the pendency from 7.11.2015, we direct the fourth and fifth respondents to sanction and pay the due amount to these pensioners within a period of six months.”

But the above 13 Veteran Captains getting their dues and their pensions aligned with OROP stand little chance. Government will appeal against the AFT judgment and there will be tarikh pe tarikh. Veterans are trash for the deep state unless they join the TWG to keep mum or sing paeans for the deep state. Some remain indifferent believing Napoleon was wrong in saying, “The world suffers a lot, not because of the violence of bad people but because of the silence of good people”. Besides, carrots and plums work wonders with the sweet toothed no matter from which government service and walk of life.   

The Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) is a statutory body to address legal grievances of Armed Forces personnel sanctioned on August 8, 2009 under the Armed Forces Tribunal Act 2007. In 2010, 17 AFT benches were set up at 11 locations across India.  Given a chance, the deep state resident in the government would like to kill them all in one go. But the alternatives employed are quite potent as well. In 2021, the tribunal was functioning with just four benches in three locations (two in Delhi and one each in Chandigarh and Lucknow) with some 19,000 cases awaiting final adjudication – some lingering since 2010.  

Parliament was appraised of the above state in March 2020 but so what? If the pending cases rise by another 30-40,000 with SPARSH how does it matter – the wait will at least kill some of the veterans. An odd case like the 13 Veteran Captains can always be suitably buried.

Now let us examine the Brahmāstra unleashed Rajnath Singh by way of the Raksha Pension Shikayat Nivaran (RPSN) Portal wherein the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (DESW) will redress pensioners grievances speedily. It is akin to asking the PLA whereabouts of the teenager recently abducted from Arunachal Pradesh, when the PLA itself is behind the abduction. The polity is hostage to the bureaucrats but Singh should know that the DESW earned its reputation as Department of Ex-Servicemen Woes (not Welfare) a long time ago.

Media reports of March 10, 2018, had revealed that in the period 2014-2017, the government spent Rs. 106.91 crore as lawyers’ fees to fight cases against disabled veterans alone, with regard to pensions and compensation claims. The report also mentioned that one of the suggestions discussed in Parliament was that an internal verbal settlement between the government and the veterans could have saved the legal fee. But where is the question of that when SPARSH has been thrust upon the veterans without any discussion.

Media reports of March 10, 2018, had revealed that in the period 2014-2017, the government spent Rs. 106.91 crore as lawyers’ fees to fight cases against disabled veterans alone, with regard to pensions and compensation claims. The report also mentioned that one of the suggestions discussed in Parliament was that an internal verbal settlement between the government and the veterans could have saved the legal fee. But where is the question of that when SPARSH has been thrust upon the veterans without any discussion.

What has changed from the last media report, if at all? There was news that the Defence Minister asked for the litigation against the veterans, widows and disabled to be ‘reduced’ but that is about all. Was the litigation reduced?

Veterans should be manning the DESW to make the required change; or at least one-third to get on with genuine welfare of the veterans. Should the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) not be closely integrated with the DESW though the ideal would be for the DESW to be ‘overseen’ by the DMA? But given the snobbery of the bureaucracy and dependence of polity on them, this would unlikely happen though many scholars have been recommending this.

SPARSH and the RPSN Portal will no doubt be rammed down the throats of the veterans, widows and the disabled. They can simply lump it because the more they lose their dues, the more the DESW fund will grow – so someone is benefiting anyway in addition to the PCDA Empire expanding.

Singh is unaware or party to the trick the bureaucracy has pulled off. As per inside sources the case projected was that Rs. 200 crore was being dished annually for banks to function as Pension Disbursement Authority (PDA) in the existing system, which needed to be saved. So, fresh contracts have been signed with SBI and PNB for acting as Service Centres for undisclosed amount of money. But the masterstroke is the chain of additional Service Centres manned by PCDA personnel on permanent basis to be established across the country (numbers unknown). This would involve acquiring accommodation for the Service Centre and the staff, expenditure on establishment of the set up and recruiting additional PCDA personnel replete with pay and perks, faster promotions with NFU, and recurring expenditure. All this including the deals with SBI and PNB will perhaps total up to an overall annual expenditure many times more than the annual expenditure of Rs. 200 crore. But that is what the bureaucracy is all about. This needs to stop but who will do it?

The least that Singh can do is to direct the DESW to operate a website ‘Veteran Grievances’ to list out every grievances/cases taken up by pensioners and their families; similar to FIRs filed by individuals are being made available to the public by the police in some states. It could even be part of the main DESW website but the list should give mention when the grievance/case was filed and showing progress of the individual cases on occurrence. The cases filed in AFTs should also be included since DESW is at the apex of ESM welfare.

This will galvanise the DESW and have on public display how grievances/cases of pensioners are being handled rather than the media suddenly reporting 19,000 cases are pending – some over a decade. An annual rise in numbers would also indicate to the Defence Minister the need for corrective action.

Incidentally, there is news about facial recognition making rendition of annual life certificates simpler but apparently it is not part of SPARSH yet.

Veterans are a valuable source who can contribute immensely to further national interests; not meant to be exploited as vote banks and trashed otherwise. Barack Obama as President of the US had once said, “It is how we treat our veterans every single day of the year. It’s about making sure they have the care they need and the benefits that they’ve earned when they come home. It’s about serving all of you as well as you’ve served the United States of America.”

SPARSH and the RPSN Portal will no doubt be rammed down the throats of the veterans, widows and the disabled. They can simply lump it because the more they lose their dues, the more the DESW fund will grow – so someone is benefiting anyway in addition to the PCDA Empire expanding.

The bureaucracy loves the US with their wards studying in America and preferring to work and settle abroad, with none joining the military. It is for the politicians that need to change the government’s attitude toward the Armed Forces and the veterans, not the public who hold them in high esteem.

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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