Disability pension tax: Rather than vilifying soldiers, Defence Ministry should work with forces to prevent dishonest claims

The Indian bureaucracy seems to have a way of ensuring that every few months some ruling or the other is released which causes anguish to the serving security personnel and the veterans of the armed forces. This is surprising especially when the entire nation is unified in placing the same personnel on a pedestal due to the sacrifices rendered by them.

On social media, it feels good to be a soldier, largely due to the genuine adulation from scores of people who simply and honestly wish to support those who have chosen to serve the nation and taken the oath to place their lives on the line.

 Disability pension tax: Rather than vilifying soldiers, Defence Ministry should work with forces to prevent dishonest claims

Representational image. PTI

The latest of these orders creating much heartburn and perception among the veterans and future retirees of being let down is an order of the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT). The order has turned around a provision that goes back almost a hundred years (also reiterated through a ruling in 1970), which granted exemption from Income Tax to all those who exited service (prematurely invalidated or at the end of the contracted period) with a duly certified medical disability. This disability relates to aggravation of health due to service conditions, injuries suffered in the line of duty while facing the enemy, internal security duties or accidents attributable to service.

The CBDT order says that Income Tax exemption will apply only to those who were invalidated out of service and did not serve the full contract period. It won’t apply to those who exited due to retirement at the age of their achieved rank and with disability benefits.

How does the existing system work and why this whimsical reversal?

In order to comprehend the entire issue of disability a couple of aspects need clear explanation. First, service in the armed forces involves a tremendous commitment of the physical being. Security personnel have to take physical risk at most times placing themselves in the course of bodily harm in more ways than one. Long bouts of deployment under high altitude conditions where snow avalanches, depleted levels of oxygen and movement over terribly dangerous tracks by foot or vehicle can place life and limb at risk. Similarly pilots of all three services serve under conditions of high accident rates or risk to health due to such things as shock, G-factor or stress. There are always chances of injury for much of the Indian Army being deployed in operational commitments on the LoC or LAC or in internal security and counter terror operations.

Besides, there is acute stress that builds up when lives are under threat and the burden of responsibility is heavy. Responsibility exists in any job, but specifically military responsibility carries the onus of lives and even national territory, property and honour. A court of inquiry invariably examines every case of physical injury and determines whether the injury was attributable to service conditions. Battle casualties (BC) are automatically given BC status which means it is attributable to service. This is followed by a medical board of officers which determines the physical status of the individual, advisability to retain the casualty in service or invalidate him. Some may opt out to attempt to pursue an alternative career with the injuries sustained; thus invalidated out by choice or inability to be given sheltered appointment due to the nature of disablement. Others may be given sheltered appointments which do not require the usual rigours of service. There may be yet others who with their injuries may grit their teeth and continue to pursue every activity which is demanded from a soldier and compete for the limited vacancies of promotion to higher ranks. Three classic cases of war injured personnel need to be recounted to sensitize the reader to the challenges injured security personnel face and how they overcome them.

Major General Ian Cardozo, an infantry officer in service with his troops during the 1971 India-Pakistan War (as a Major) was in a uniquely challenging operational situation with little medical and logistics support to his unit. He severely injured his leg when he stepped on a mine. Ordinarily he would have bled to death but he grabbed a khukhri (a Gurkha knife used as a side arm), severed his own injured leg and asked his men to bury it; he survived.

He was a war disabled soldier, but chose to continue in service and sought command of his unit as a Lieutenant Colonel even as he wore an artificial limb over the stump of his leg. When asked to prove his ability to command as an injured soldier, he chose to march with his men 40 kilometers in the desert with full battle load, on an eventually bleeding stump. The then Army Chief certified him fit to command. He rose to be a Major General, one of the most respected figures in the Indian Army.

The Indian Army also had late Lieutenant General Pankaj Joshi who lost both legs in battle; he similarly never flinched from leading his men, passed the battle physical efficiency tests, commanded his unit and went on to become a Lieutenant General, raising the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff in 2001 at the Commander in Chief level.

There is also Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi, former Vice Chief of Army Staff, a battle amputee from India-Pakistan Conflict 1965, and an outstanding former military commander having also commanded the army’s Western Command and Army Training Command, and now an inspirational citizen. All these war heroes carried attributable disability and there are many like them who may have suffered injuries, not just in battle, but also under unique circumstances which service conditions throw up time to time. Thus far, the nation gave them the benefit of paying no Income Tax on their service and disability pension thus facilitating a little more affordability to their pockets in their older years when they can no longer earn a living.

Each disabled individual who retires at the concerned age of his rank has a medical board to certify the percentage of disability. That determines the amount of disability pension he will receive. The maximum disability pension (for security personnel with 100 percent disability) is 30 percent of the basic pay of the rank he retires in. If the basic pay is Rs 1,20,000, then the disability pension of an individual with hundred percent disability will be Rs 40,000. However, 100 percent disability is rare; mostly 50 or 75 percent may be granted.

Somewhere things went a little awry as they do over time. A retiring Director General Armed Forces (DGAFMS) whose responsibility was to ascertain and officially certify the percentage of disability of all retiring personnel, at the end of his service, wrote to the defence secretary with an insinuation that senior officers of the forces wrongly claim disability benefits. The letter, which has made the rounds of the media, also insinuated that senior officers intimidated their junior medical officers into certifying medical disability and categorisation near the time of retirement.

Instead of raising scandalous allegations, this officer should have evolved foolproof methods to make personnel undergo medical boards whose recommendations were verifiable at various levels. He was the senior most medical officer of the armed forces. Instead of cribbing and bleating, he should have displayed leadership in creating a near foolproof system.

A problem created by a few cases of dishonest securement of favourable disability verdicts from medical boards, surely could be rectified instead of creating a hullaballoo and giving the waiting bureaucracy one more issue to see the back of a facility enjoyed by veterans of the forces. The political community would hardly have played a role in this, but is guilty to the extent that the final approval is given by the political community. The rancour between the bureaucracy and the armed forces community is well to known. It should have shown more sensitivity and perhaps done far more interaction before approving a decision which probably would never have then been arrived at in the first place. It was also given that disincentivising disability is a sensitive subject.

Vilifying a whole community which has rendered yeoman service to the nation for the sake of a few who may attempt to exploit the rules cannot be in order. The fire of dishonesty has to be doused by better systems and not by blanket change of rules.

A delegation of senior and revered veterans must approach the Minister of Defence and the Prime Minister and sensitise them to the eroding confidence of the armed forces community regarding matters of their management. The Service Chiefs must institute a foolproof and verifiable system of management of disability. The restoration of Income Tax exemption for disability pension related cases must, of course, be taken up on priority.

Updated Date: Jun 27, 2019 17:31:37 IST