With reports emerging that the data on disabled soldiers and disability pensions presented by the Defence Accounts Dept to the 7th Central Pay Commission may have been twisted, what could be more saddening than the thought that the allied departments created to help and aid the defence services have today become their greatest enemies?
The controversy : The genesis of this controversy lies in the slashing of disability pensions for defence services by the Pay Commission, tacitly hinting that percentage-wise more officers were drawing disability benefits than personnel of lower ranks. This has unnecessarily created fissures between the Government, the Armed Forces, disabled veterans and the civil society in what was clearly an avoidable controversy. Further rankling was the fact that the Pay Commission admitted in Para 10.2.50 of its Report that the data had been provided to it by the Controller General of Defence Accounts (CGDA), which is inherently odd since it was the Ministry of Defence or the Defence Services Headquarters who alone were authorized to interact with the Commission. Moreover, it also defies logic as to how could such data be relied upon in a one-way manner without being authenticated or even discussed with the stake-holders.
Strange coincidence : What is more shocking is the fact that the CGDA, as reported by the Indian Express today, tried to intervene and interfere in disability benefits to soldiers by writing a letter to the Army in September 2015 and when its efforts in denting the legally admissible benefits failed, the same points found place in the Pay Commission Report in November 2015 based on data provided by CGDA. Needless to state, the Supreme Court and the High Courts have time and again held that the Defence Accounts Department has no role to play in such aspects which are the domain of rules promulgated by the Government, binding judicial decisions, executive and legal authorities. The exuberance shown by the said department to exceed and usurp jurisdiction therefore should be nipped in the bud by the Government. The department, though admirably rendering important services, should restrict itself to accounting and correctness of amounts to be disbursed as per rules.
Twisted figures : The CGDA provided a data of 18.9% recipients of disability benefits in the year 2007-2008 which went down to 7.2% in 2013-2014 for ranks other than Commissioned Officers while it stated that the percentage went up from 13.6% to 19.8% in case of Commissioned Officers.
However, it is understood that even the said data is false and the percentage of recipients for personnel other than Commissioned Officers was about 16% and for Officers it was 12.5%. The shocking schism projected by the CGDA was hence faulty and consequently so was the reliance of the Pay Commission on doctored data therefore also rendering its final recommendations questionable.
Even the above figures of 16% and 12.5% respectively are not an accurate representation of military disabilities since many of these instances would comprise of injuries as opposed to diseases. Injuries during the course of performance of duties due to accidents, operational reasons and unforeseen incidents are unavoidable in any operationally oriented force which does not function in a controlled environment.
Comparison with other nations : The closest democracy to which Indian forces can be compared operationally and numerically is the US. In 2014, a total of 22.5% personnel in the US were released with a disability, which is much higher than the Indian figures. The incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) alone rose from about 90 cases in 2002 to 12,570 cases in 2014 as recorded by the Congressional Research Service in its report published on 7th August 2015. Veterans serving in the operational environment in the Middle East have displayed symptoms of PTSD alone upto a tune of 20%, and this is only speaking of PTSD and not other disabilities.
Reasons for rising disability data in India : The reasons, though not thrashed out by the CGDA or the Pay Commission, for a slight rise in correct disability data and higher incidence of disability in Commissioned Officers, are multifarious:
· The service span of officers is more than others. While lower ranks start retiring in their 30s depending upon rank, the minimum age of retirement of officers is 54, thereby increasing the probability of disability in case of the latter.
· The percentage projected by the Defence Accounts Department contains the data of not only diseases but also injuries and operational disabilities which are not in the control of individuals or institutions or health services.
· The data, though even numerically wrong, is also not honestly rendered since it is not current and contains hundreds of instances where even old cases (some of them who had retired with a disability in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s) who were illegally denied disability pension earlier and had now been released their due benefits on change of policy or judicial intervention.
Setting a dangerous pattern : The lack of moral honesty in playing around with figures and feeding the political executive, media and social media with wrong information, especially in such cases involving the disabled and the frail, has a dangerous fallout. Tomorrow, soldiers may feel uncomfortable in exposing themselves to exigencies of service such as long deployments away from family or high pressure environments which lead to rising stress levels and aggravation of medical conditions. Worse, personnel may start avoiding operating with full enthusiasm in tough areas just to avoid risking disability or injury, all thanks to the data of accountants and an unethical vilification campaign against disabled soldiers. While the world is moving towards liberalization of the regime of assessing disabilities and rules in India also being apt and balanced, our accountants are getting excessively concerned about rising disability payouts and labelling stress-induced medical conditions as ‘lifestyle diseases’. Well, this unsettled ‘lifestyle’ is not a picnic for our soldiers. Disabilities are unpredictable and not mathematical or in own control. Disabilities are a natural consequence of an operational and strong Army and if we want to count pennies then our accountants should simply recommend the abolition of the military, the Pay Commission may perhaps agree!
To aid or to obstruct : It is also equally jarring to observe that allied organisations which are meant to help out our defence services are today embracing obstructionism and also promoting an environment of distrust and negativity by trying to play around with the sentiments of our defence services and projecting urban legends to the political executive to cloud the decision making process. Contrary to popular perception, our troops are dying earlier than their civilian counterparts. Jawans released in their 30s standing outside your neighbourhood ATM, for we give them nothing better, look like they are in their 50s- such is the effect of military service on health. The question arises that if indeed there was a trend of rising disabilities in the forces, why did not the Defence Accounts Department or even the Pay Commission rather suggest measures to check the deteriorating health profile of our troops?
A question to which there is no answer.
Major Navdeep Singh
Major Navdeep Singh is a practicing Advocate in the Punjab & Haryana High Court and the Armed Forces Tribunal. He was also the founding President of the Armed Forces Tribunal Bar Association. An author of four books, he is a Member of the International Society for Military Law and the Law of War at Brussels. He writes extensively at www.IndianMilitary.info
and tweets under the handle @SinghNavdeep