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Pension bill can be cut if Government has the will

There would be some reduction in the pension bill when civil defence employees, presently under National Pension Scheme (NPS), introduced in 2004, move closer to retirement.

Harsha Kakar | New Delhi |

The new scheme, proposed by the army, termed as ‘Tour of Duty’ envisaging a shorter service tenure without liability for pension and other benefits, has been mandated by the compulsion to curtail the pension bill while enhancing funds for modernisation. In the annual budget, pensions are covered under a different head; however, the finance ministry considers it a part of the overall defence budget.

It currently forms 25 per cent of the total defence outlay. There would be some reduction in the pension bill when civil defence employees, presently under National Pension Scheme (NPS), introduced in 2004, move closer to retirement. However, this may be offset by OROP, increase in number of military veterans and enhancement in pensions. Hence, the current 25 per cent may remain constant.

Thus, service HQs are compelled to seek solutions to reduce the pension bill, enabling additional funds for modernisation. Service HQs independently evaluating options to reduce the pension bill is, by itself, a flawed concept. Reducing expenditure on pensions is the responsibility of the government, which has the power to adopt a holistic approach. If left to service HQs, there would be knee-jerk solutions, based on limited avenues. Options exist and these have been conveyed to the government on multiple occasions.

However, like their predecessors, even the current administration lacks determination to enforce a lasting solution. It remains influenced by a lobby working to keep armed forces away from being the sole authority responsible for external security, ignoring basic tenets of national security. The government regularly panicked by concerns of a coup, continues to hesitate in bringing about essential reforms.

The appointment of a watered down CDS and limited involvement of forces’ representatives in the NSC indicates that the trust deficit remains. If this is the status even after 70 years of independence, then the understanding of the army by the country’s polity is poor. India is possibly the only country with two active borders held by hostile neighbours, partially guarded by police forces under a different ministry.

While on paper the defence secretary is responsible for national security, the reality is that multitude of forces, deployed for border security under different ministries, dilutes such responsibility. Regular occurrences along the LAC and LoC necessitates that CAPFs deployed along active borders need to be under one command. They are officially meant to be under operational control of the army.

However, coordination and control are dependent on the ego and personality of commanders of different forces. In operational discussions, conducted by the army, the level of attendance by CAPFs displays their lack of interest in these confabulations, whereas the reality is that the Indian Police Service, which heads these forces is wary of projecting ignorance on operational issues.

Every security-related study has recommended placing forces deployed on key borders under one ministry, the MoD, to enhance national security. Pay commissions over the decades have suggested sidestepping retiring military personnel to the CAPFs, thus reducing the pension budget. Both these recommendations remain ignored due to false flagging stories of coups and other illogical reasons.

Ideally, the government should adopt a multipronged approach to handle both issues. The first is that all battalions of ITBP and BSF deployed in critical operational areas should come under the army for operations and administration. Secondly, at the jawan level, those finishing colour service in the army should be given an offer of sidestepping to these forces. Thirdly, Short Service (SS) Officers, post completion of mandatory 5 years’ service in the army could be moved into the CAPFs.

Finally, the CAPFs must be commanded by their own cadre, which has functioned alongside the army for decades, rather than the IPS, which airdrops out of nowhere into positions of Additional Directors-General and Directors- General, with no ground experience and hence distances itself on operational issues. The benefits of adopting these steps are many. Firstly, it would enhance national security with the defence minister personally responsible since all forces will remain under his ministry.

Secondly, the capability of the forces responsible for border security would be enhanced as experienced army veterans would form part of the force. Thirdly, it would reduce the pension bill. Fourthly, the SS scheme, which remains undersubscribed would get a boost and multiple others, including those under consideration would become redundant. Finally, enmeshing CAPFs into operational plans would be easier as the current CAPF cadre has dealt with the army and in time CAPFs would have an ex-army cadre rising within.

Stumbling blocks placed by airdropped IPS officers, who have no ground experience, would be avoided. Ideally there should be laid down percentages for direct recruitment and sidestepping at all levels. The resolving of pensions from non-NPS to NPS could be handled. National security experts, aware that there can be no better solution, continuously recommend the right approach, but vested interests of the IAS and IPS, which see these postings as grounds for grabbing perks, with no desire to care for the mass of their soldiers, push contrary views.

The recent decision of the CRPF to withdraw staff retained by the IAS and IPS, even post retirement, citing COVID 19 as an excuse, bears merit. The number of beneficiaries claimed by the CRPF is in hundreds and the facilities retained after retirement include vehicles, drivers, cooks and other administrative personnel, numbering in thousands. In case similar cases of other CAPFs is considered, numbers could be much larger. Another lame logic given by the bureaucracy is that a soldier on being moved to a CAPF would have to be taught handling of mobs without over-application of force. This implies changing mindset from ‘rifle to a lathi.’

This is illogical and should be discarded as the soldier is a disciplined individual, taught to follow orders. If the government is serious on reducing the pension bill and enhancing national security, then it needs to take hard decisions. What better time than now, when the nation is facing an economic crisis and major reforms in defence are being announced. The question remains, does the government have the will to act?

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)