There’s talk once again of the One Rank One Pension scheme for the armed forces in the country’s news pages. Once again, political parties are wrangling over it as more than 2.5 million veterans who have been waiting for the scheme for three decades watch from the sidelines.

One Rank One Pension, or OROP, implies payment of a uniform pension to personnel retiring in the same rank with the same length of service, irrespective of their date of retirement. At present, pensioners who retired before 2006 draw a lower pension than their counterparts and juniors who retired afterwards.

The disparity between past and present pensioners has grown with every successive Pay Commission. It became most visible after the implementation of the Sixth Pay Commission’s recommendations in 2000s. A sepoy who retired before 1996 gets 82% less pension than a sepoy who retired after 2006. Among officers, a major who retired pre-1996 gets 53% less pension than a major who retired post-2006.

Predictably, this situation has left the ex-servicemen community extremely unhappy.

Why military pensions are different

Until 1973, officers drew 50% of their last drawn salary as pension every month and jawans/junior commissioned officers drew 70%. But this changed after the Third Pay Commission’s suggestions came in that year: military pensions were reduced and aligned with civilian pensions.

Many of those who resist One Rank One Pension argue that, given the alignment in military and civilian pensions, the scheme for the military may prompt similar calls from others. Their argument is, however, misplaced. Notwithstanding the pensions, the military is distinct from other government services.

To start with, armed forces personnel do not get to serve as long as those in the civil services. While the retirement age for civil servants is 60 years, 85% soldiers are compulsorily retired between 35 and 37 years of age and another 12% to 13% soldiers between 40 and 54 years.

Further, civil servants are protected under Section 47 of the Disability Act and cannot be discharged by the government on account of disability until they reach the retirement age. This section doesn’t apply to the defence forces and they can be discharged anytime on account of disability.

The Legal Position

In 1983, the Supreme Court had ruled in the case of DS Nakra and others vs Union of India that “pension is not a bounty nor a matter of grace depending upon the sweet will of the employer. It is not an ex-gratia payment, but a payment for past services rendered."

The apex court spoke again on this issue in the case of Union of India & Maj Gen SPS Vains & Others in 2009. It ruled then that no defence personnel senior in rank could get a lower pension than his junior irrespective of the date of retirement, and that similarly placed officers of the same rank should be given the same pension irrespective of the date of retirement.

On February 17 this year, the court, while hearing a contempt petition filed by Maj Gen (Retd) SPS Vains, directed the Centre to implement its six-year-old verdict and follow the OROP principle for retired armed forces personnel. It reminded the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government that the party had promised to do so in the run-up to last year’s Lok Sabha elections.

The bench, comprising Justices TS Thakur and AK Goel, warned the government of contempt if it failed to abide by the order within three months. “We make it clear that no further time will be granted for the purpose of [the] implementation of the judgement,” it told additional solicitor general Pinky Anand.

Long overdue

The OROP scheme has been on an endless journey for the past three decades. Successive governments have ignored it or pushed it to the backburner, suggesting that armed forces veterans are secondary to political expediency and politics. Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had offered new hope when he said his government would implement it “as soon as possible”.

While the euphoria generated by Modi’s statements pre- and post-election has died down, the military veterans are still cautious. They have heard statements before declaring that OROP has been “cleared”, “finalised”, “signed”. They now want a government order that confirms the scheme, putting an end to the pension disparity that has hurt so many veterans across ranks.

The decades-long governmental apathy towards ex-servicemen’s demands has put a financial squeeze on veterans who retired years ago and now can’t meet the rising costs of living with their low pensions. It has also projected the armed forces as an unattractive career option for the youth. Lured by the far more lucrative salaries in the corporate sector, hundreds of officers opt out of the services for better financial prospects. This has led to an acute shortage of manpower in the armed forces.

While the armed forces are called upon to help in every major emergency – be it the Yemen evacuations, the Uttarakhand flood rescue operation, or Operation Maitri in earthquake-hit Nepal – there is nobody heeding the call when these men are in need. The Indian government must fulfil its much-repeated promise if it wants to keep the country’s armed forces motivated.