Fact or fiction, abuse of disability benefits by defence personnel must be thoroughly probed
Whether fact or fiction, the issue of top military officers nearing retirement abusing disability benefits for higher and tax-free pensions needs to be thoroughly probed, not left out as just another issue
A national daily has alleged that a former lieutenant general when heading the Armed Forces Medical Services (AFMS) as director general wrote to the Defence Secretary alleging: one, top military officers nearing retirement are abusing disability benefits for higher and tax-free pensions; two, “alarming trend” of absolutely fit generals, admirals and air marshals are exploiting the welfare measure by getting themselves placed in the lower medical category.
A medical downgrade entitles a soldier to better retirement benefits. And the provision was allegedly being misused by few veteran officers who claimed disability benefits for diseases such as corns in their feet, eczema (a skin disorder), and hearing loss. The daily, Hindustan Times, says it has in its possession the letter which was purportedly written by the said DG, AFMS, in December 2014, but has not apparently been made public.
The daily, however, has printed excerpts of the letter, which reads: “I would like to apprise you of an alarming trend evolving in the services, with regards to claims for disability pension being preferred by senior officers of the rank of lieutenant general and major general and their equivalent... Specialists and medical officers working in hospitals under their command find themselves constrained to oblige these officers... Top officers who retired in Shape-1 were submitting 'post discharge claims' for disabilities... they claim to have contracted while in service... The provision was being misused by few veteran officers who claimed disability benefits for diseases such as corns in their feet, eczema, a skin disorder, and hearing loss contracted while in service."
The said former DG who retired in June 2016 has reportedly told Hindustan Times that he pursued the matter for one-and-half years after writing the letter, and the details that emerged were shocking. The daily quotes “sources” stating that the claims for disability pensions have shot up significantly during the last 10 years following the implementation of the sixth Central Pay Commission (CPC) in 2006 that enhanced benefits. However, according to the report, “A detailed scrutiny of records showed that before 2006 hardly any top officers claimed disability pension. But by 2015, about 21 percent of them were claiming benefits. If someone has disability, they should declare it earlier in service and not a few months before retirement.”
The timing of this letter “accessed” by the daily is noteworthy since the government is under considerable fire for a notification issued by the Ministry of Defence on 30 September 2016 (two days after the successful surgical strikes) which grants pensionary awards based on recommendations of the seventh CPC. The said notification reduces the amount of admissible disability benefits to pensioners relegating rates to the "slab system" that was prevalent prior to the 6th CPC. It places disabled defence pensioners at a sharp disadvantage.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar reportedly told the Service Chiefs to immediately implement the seventh CPC despite it denigrating the military to lowest levels, even below the police, and an unprecedented stand by military asking it to wait for the anomalies to be resolved before implementing seventh CPC. And the Service Chiefs are right in wanting the anomalies to be tackled first. In fact, even the Punjab and Haryana High Court has issued a notice to the Central government directing it to use a sensitive approach while hearing views of the defence personnel. It also directed the Anomaly Committee to take into account the views of the defence personnel.
Sure the Defence Minister has referred the issue of calculating disability pension for soldiers to the Anomaly Committee of the Seventh CPC last week, but why was he not aware of it before issuing the notification from MoD on 30 September? And who has leaked the above-purported letter (if there is one) to the media, and why now?
The game of denigrating the military and hitting at the morale of soldiers is not new. It is part of the asymmetric war of our enemies, and the infusion of foreign funds are very much part of it. If the huge amount of money spent on moulding perceptions in the Westland Helicopter deal is any indication, why not weaken the military? In India, under the cliché of "free speech", anything goes anyway, even if Hafiz Saeed showers accolades on someone. Remember the fellow who headlined the fake story of an army coup. He was reportedly briefed by a Union minister (presently sitting in Rajya Sabha) because his son’s arms dealings were somehow not getting adequate attention. So, this journo goes and posts his story even as he is living way beyond his means, and is loathed by majority journo colleagues. But who can really touch him when he is smart enough to gain the tutelage of a Union minister, including in the present set up? So, no one is happier than the guys across the border.
But let us assume that the above-mentioned letter is genuine and that the government would not have "leaked" it if had not been slammed for drastically reducing the disability pension of military personnel through MoD’s 30 September notification. Many would be unaware that the Directorate General of the Armed Forces Medical Services (DG AFMS) functions directly under the MoD. The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) and the follow up Group of Ministers (headed by then deputy prime minister and home minister LK Advani) reports, under which Headquarter Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS) was established, had recommended that both DG AFMS and the Directorate General of Quality Assurance (DGQA) be brought under HQ IDS. However, this did not happen. Little wonder then that when a service chief went to call on the defence minister for the first time, the latter wanted to know how his relatives could be treated at the Army’s Research & Referral Hospital.
As for DGQA, the bottleneck for "certifying" items is well known, and you can well guess how bottlenecks are greased. There was a time when no reserves of special clothing for soldiers deployed on the Saltoto Range in Siachen Glacier area were maintained. Instead, there was a system called ‘Annual Provisioning Review’ which meant that the process of import of the items commenced with the new financial year) and by the time the items were imported, cleared by the DGQA and reached the troops, winters would have set in with many frostbite cases for the lack of adequate special clothing. The DGMS and DGQA continue to be under MoD, not under HQ IDS.
As to the former DG AFMS who reportedly authored the above letter, few questions need to be answered: One, since he was elevated to DG AFMS after serving as DG MS (Army) under Army HQ, did he, as advisor to the Army Chief (s), apprise the Army Chief of such happenings and recommend action against defaulters, or, did he keep quiet currying favour least he missed out elevation to DG AFMS. Two, since misuse of the provision has been reported by him since 2006, was he as a medical doctor pressurised to give the wrong certification? Did he submit to such pressure? Three, can he come on record to say he did apprise the Army Chief of such purported wrong practices? Four, if he did not apprise the Army Chief about such wrongdoings, did he issue any instructions or advisory as DGMS (Army) to Commands and hospitals warning them about such practice? Did he ask that he be informed immediately of any such incident on occurrence? Five, did he issue a similar advisory to the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force once he became DG AFMS? Five, did he send the full names and particulars of the defaulters when he reportedly wrote to the Defence Secretary, and if so, what action did he recommend? Six, was he, as DGMS (Army) or DG AFMS, aware that post-retirement grant of the disability pension is admissible to both military personnel and defence employees, and the reasons why it is permitted. Seven, since he retired in June 2016, why did he wait till the government was slammed because of the 30 September notification. Who, asked him to do so and why is he currying favour now? And, lastly, eight, is he amenable to release names of the so-called defaulters (both person granted disability and the medico certifying the same), or request the government to do so in order to clear his name because of the above questions? If not then this so called DG AFMS should stop using the title of Lt Gen.
The bottom line is that whether fact or fiction, the issue needs to be thoroughly probed, not left out as just another issue.
The author is a veteran Lt Gen of Indian Army.
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