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Veterans left in the lurch as pension system fails

Launched in 2021 with much fanfare, it was aimed at saving Rs 250 crore annually. Its cost of induction was Rs 160 crore; however, with a new contract for the removal of anomalies, training and operating, it would be far higher. 

HARSHA KAKAR |

The latest government experiment to have crashed is SPARSH (System for Pension Administration (Raksha)), the new pension paying system for armed forces veterans. Its failure came to light on 1 May when almost 60,000 veterans found their pensions were not credited. Launched in 2021 with much fanfare, it was aimed at saving Rs 250 crore annually. Its cost of induction was Rs 160 crore; however, with a new contract for the removal of anomalies, training and operating, it would be far higher. 

The motto adopted by SPARSH was, ‘right pension delivered at the right time.’ On the contrary, it blocked pensions due to its own shortcomings, while blaming the end-user for not complying with government instructions. Further, the office of the Principal Controller of Defence Accounts (Pensions) (PCDA(P)) has a reputation for being lethargic and unresponsive. It has on occasions rejected pension allocations made by service HQs, an act beyond its mandate. 

From the moment it was conceived there was opposition to SPARSH as the ongoing system operated smoothly and banks cooperated to resolve queries. There were never major complaints. SPARSH failed miserably in its first test. Service HQs had fought tooth and nail against this scheme, but their objections were ignored. 

The government, desperate to save funds, accepted the proposal of the PCDA(P) and rushed through the scheme, without it being fully tested and flaws removed. It has been implemented with post-2015 retirees. The powerful PCDA (P), assured of backing from finance and defence ministries, bypassed orders of seeking the consent of individuals before migrating them into the SPARSH system. 

There are reports that two army centres were initially a testbed for the scheme. However, as final results indicate, these trials were limited and possibly hurried, mainly to meet deadlines. Even veterans from test-bed centres were not spared, despite all their data being uploaded. Currently, SPARSH has demanded life certificates even from those who expired over a year ago and their updated information on family pensions were already available with banks. For these families, re-engineering the process would be slow, long-drawn and painful, especially if they are in rural areas. 

The roping in of functional software of two public sector banks, SBI and PNB, to create SPARSH, conveys that the PCDA(P) had no clue nor software of its own and grabbed existing software to commence operations. It could do so as these were public sector banks and hence were bullied to cooperate by the finance ministry. With terms of engagement with these banks having concluded, PCDA (P) has been compelled to sign a contract with TATA Consultancy. This annual contract also reengineering the software will remove any savings projected to the finance ministry. 

Most veterans have only pensions as their means of livelihood. Non-payment to almost 20 per cent of pensioners due to errors in the operating system should have led to heads rolling. It should have also raised eyebrows in PCDA (P). Nothing happened. On the contrary, it is the pensioners who are being compelled to repeat the process they had completed in November only because SPARSH failed to migrate life certificates when it migrated data. This can only happen in India. Now comes the catch. 

The simplicity of November 2021, when life certificates were uploaded easily by banks has ended. Instead, a confusing system, needing multiple data entries has been introduced. The problem is compounded by the fact that SPARSH did not migrate the PAN and Aadhar details of many pensioners. They would need to upload these prior to life certificates. This has resulted in pensioners running from pillar to post to complete their requirements. 

Wherever possible the army has pitched in with assistance cells, while the PCDA (P) watches the confusion from its luxurious establishment in Allahabad, unaccountable and unresponsive to individual concerns. The government has extended the date for the submission of these certificates, but this will not resolve the problem. The SPARSH software must be made more interactive and user friendly. 

Touts, aware of problems that veterans and widows are facing, have begun exploiting them by establishing life certificate uploading stalls near veteran medical clinics at district levels, away from military cantonments. Their charges vary from Rs 150-200 for each upload. Something which was free, simple, easy and error-proof has now become complicated leading to the exploitation of the vulnerable by touts. 

Any software prior to being introduced must be tested for a period of time, to determine shortcomings. Simultaneously, staff must be adequately trained and increased. The uploading of life certificates is a milestone every year and should have been factored in. Nothing was done. The PCDA (P) staff in Allahabad can provide no assistance as those handling queries are unaware of how SPARSH operates. In desperation to gain brownie points, the PCDA rushed into an untested system filled with flaws. The launching of TATA Neu is an example. It is reported that the software was tested on Tata employees for a prolonged duration prior to being made available to the public. 

If only the government had listened to the pleas of the armed forces and veterans. If only the government had not fallen for fake promises of financial savings made by PCDA (P). If only the PCDA (P) had not pushed a half-baked, untested system into the environment. If only a proper trial had been conducted, and users involved. Only then could the government have been saved from the blushes it now faces as also its standing and reputation would not have been tarnished. Only then would the PCDA (P) not have battered its already poor image further. Alas, this is democratic India where the vulnerable suffer and those responsible are never held accountable. 

It appears to have become a habit to rush into announcements and implementation on matters concerning armed forces and subsequently re-consider. Re-assessing the appointment of the CDS, announced with much fanfare from the ramparts of the Red Fort, was the first. SPARSH is next. It is hoped that the under-consideration Tour of Duty does not undergo a similar fate a few months down the line.