An internal communique dated 29 October, from the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), under the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), conveyed the intention of the government to enhance service age limits, while reducing pensions to those who seek pre-mature retirement. The memo, possibly deliberately leaked, directs the concerned branch to process the two cases for government sanction.
This evoked acrossthe- board criticism. The first proposal concerns enhancing age limits for officers, thus doing away with re-employment. Colonels, who post retirement at 54, were eligible for reemployment till 58, would now serve till 57, without reemployment, Brigadiers till 58 and Major Generals till 59, an addition of a year.
This is beneficial as dignity of rank is lost during reemployment. On the other hand, pensions have been reduced for those seeking premature retirement, commencing from 50 per cent for those leaving before 25 years of service. Full pension would be granted if service is beyond 35 years. In addition, age limit for all personnel in logistics, technical and medical branches, to include EME, AOC and ASC for the army, has been raised to 57 years.
The intention is evidently to reduce the pension bill, as also retain those gaining specific qualifications at service cost. The letter states, “there are several specialists/super specialists, who are trained for high skill jobs in the services that leave the service to work in other sectors. Such loss of high skilled manpower, results in void in the services skill matrix and is counter productive to the armed forces.”
The pension bill has been ballooning over the years. The allocation this year is Rs 1,33,825 crore, which is 28 per cent of the MoD’s total budget, 4.4 per cent of the central government expenditure or 0.6 per cent of the GDP. As per data of April 2019, there are 3.24 million pensioners under the MoD of which 2.59 million (80 per cent) are retired military personnel or their families and 0.60 million (approx. 20 per cent) are defence civilians, their dependents or unclassified.
Within the next decade or so, all civil defence employees would be covered under the National Pension Scheme, while armed forces would continue under the present Defined Pension Scheme. Currently pensions, pay and allowances comprise 61 per cent of the defence budget. With premature retirees on the rise, defence pensions would continue increasing with additional strain flowing from OROP increments and future pay commissions.
Increasing age limits for all personnel is an option to control the pension bill; however, it has an impact on combat effectiveness and the necessity to maintain a young army. Hence, age increase is only for those of service organisations. This would make services more lucrative than arms for the army, impact on the navy and air force being more severe. However, there are aspects, mainly involving the individual, which have been ignored. Every individual possesses ambitions as also visualizes a career for himself in the regiment or service of his choice when he graduates from the academy.
In a service bound by pyramidical structure with limited vacancies, many competent individuals are overlooked, not because of ability or qualifications, but because of vacancies. For them, success in alternative pastures of a growing economy offsets the disgruntlement of being unable to succeed in the service they voluntarily joined. Reduced pensions would compel many to avoid taking a risk of an alternate career, resulting in the armed forces retaining its cadre by brute force, rather than willingness, leading to large numbers of disgruntled officers who would remain a liability rather than an asset.
The armed forces’ morale is dependent on the level of satisfaction of its cadre, which would perforce be low. As regards releasing those who have obtained specialist/ super specialist training, the regulations for release rests with the service concerned. The armed forces, unlike other civil services, do not permit cadre to retire prematurely without sanction. This policy can be reconsidered rather than adopting a common approach and discouraging even those whom the forces considered unsuitable for higher ranks to seek alternative avenues.
The impact of directions under consideration will be negative in many aspects. It would promote a culture of sycophancy as without relevant gradings, despite qualifications, the future could be bleak for the majority. Those who missed the boat would be compelled to continue serving. Currently, vacancies arise from retirements and releases. With release now being curtailed, there would be an impact on promotions.
With first selections being held with 13 to 14 years of service, the armed forces would be compelled to carry superseded officers for almost two decades, which is detrimental to morale. Is this the best alternative? There is the option of alternate avenues, including employment in CAPFs and central government undertakings. It is here that the MoD has failed.
The responsibility of opening alternate avenues for those who missed the bus is that of the MoD. Central government quotas exist but are neither enforced, nor does it appear that the MoD takes suitable interest in pushing for them. This has compelled many, failing to make the grade in the service, to seek their own avenues.
The decision of reducing pensions implies hiding the failure of the MoD while penalizing those who discovered their own avenues as an alternative to serving in disgruntlement. Reduced pensions also imply deducting what the nation owes the individual for his service. On the contrary it is argued that the individual who quits young would earn from his second innings as also in pension, thus earning double, and hence one income can be curtailed.
This is a myopic view. Pension is security which supports the individual commencing his new career at a lower salary, hoping to attain the success which he could not while in uniform, and should not be denied. No organization retains disgruntled employees if it seeks to grow and flourish, nor should the armed forces. Morale of the military cadre has greater value and must dominate decisions. There is a need to reconsider these proposals and look at long term alternatives.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)