I am writing this article from the hospital bed on withdrawal of Income Tax Exemption by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) from all disabled personnel, apparently on a move initiated or acquiesced by Army Headquarters.

Before my admission to the ICU of the hospital, initial reports relating to the withdrawal of Income Tax (IT) Exemption to disabled personnel had commenced appearing in the public domain. Practically everybody was being blamed for the fiasco. At the same time, war-injured jawans from the NGO I run- War Wounded Foundation, started calling, wanting details and whether they were also affected.

The last piece I read before getting admitted to the ICU was a very informative and balanced one by the highly clued up lawyer-warrior, Major Navdeep Singh, primarily not on the merits of the subject but its historical and global backdrop.

After shifting from the ICU to the Ward, I note that the acrimony has reached its peak and the ire of most social media warriors is now squarely directed at the hierarchy of the Army, which seems to be in agreement with the move.

If most of what is available in the public domain is correct, then it is obviously a regressive step. What is most galling is the surreptitious manner in which the news was made public and the hesitancy of Army Headquarters to openly state that they were the initiators of the move. Subsequently, it was formalized by a tweet on the official handle of Army Headquarters, which was in bad taste, to put it mildly!

In matters relating to pay, allowances and pensionary benefits, it is customary to take views from the environment. This is done by seeking recommendations not only of stakeholders and affected parties, but, in case of the Army, also of subordinate formations, and analyzing them in great detail. In addition, a lead-time is laid down for implementation so that the environment can adjust their budgets/stances/plans. In the case under discussion, perhaps sufficient thought was not given and orders were issued in a hurry.

Let me now give a little background that may clarify some of the issues. In June 2017, our NGO- War Wounded Foundation had organized a War Disabled Rally at Pune for the war disabled personnel of the Western Region. The Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) had kindly accepted to be the Chief Guest. The Rally went off very well, with the Chief mixing with a cross-section of war-disabled personnel and joining them in the Bara Khana. He had also accepted my request to declare 2018 as the ‘Year of the War Disabled’, which was later changed to ‘Year of the Disabled in the Line of Duty’, obviously to include both war disabled and other disabled personnel.

In his speech, the Chief had raised the issue of a few personnel taking undue advantage of disability benefits, without stating numbers or any details. The media did report it but the issue died down in a few days.

Later, in December 2018, in a commemoration event for the Year of the Disabled, I was invited to an event at Pune, where the disabled personnel were honoured. Once again, in his speech, the Army Chief castigated those disabled persons who were misusing the disability pension. Since the event was one of felicitations for the disabled, talking of misuse of disability allowance was jarring to say the least! As expected, it was grist for the mill and the media played it up fully.

In both events no mention was made of withdrawing the IT Exemption!

Let me highlight the needs of the disabled personnel in a few paragraphs below. Soldiers go to battle on their own two feet, but come back wounded or disabled or wrapped in the Tricolour. When battle is joined, the soldiers know that they might get wounded, disabled or killed but they still answer the call of duty. They do so with the conviction that their families will be looked after well in case they are killed and they would be adequately compensated if they are disabled. This unwritten covenant is now under grave threat.

As far as other disabled are concerned, no person voluntarily becomes a low medical category, knowing well that his prospects for career advancement would be affected. The very small numbers who try to buck the system for pecuniary benefits are found out quickly on account of the checks and balances of the army, both through the medical channels and the command hierarchy.

The reasons for the increase of disability cases are squarely due to the stresses and strains of army life in our country. Our tasks have grown manifold but there are not enough personnel to do them. Manpower shortages are well-known. Among officers, the maximum brunt is on young and middle-level officers. Add to this the harsh and diverse terrain in which the bulk of the army is serving; highly stressful CI operations in Kashmir and elsewhere; the adverse psychological effect due to long separations from families; running two or more establishments; the prevailing zero-error syndrome and not the least cantankerous senior officers who bark more than render advice and support! The physical and mental toll on personnel is severe, in fact, not just in field areas but also in peace areas.

There are good reasons why the disabled persons need better emoluments than others. Therefore any deliberations aimed at monetary reductions/cuts must consider their legitimate concerns. Compensation for disability/war-injury includes the exemption of income tax on their pensions, because a disabled person has to spend more than non-disabled persons to ensure that their disability does not deteriorate; locomotion and peripheral needs are met; and many wheelchair-bound need disabled-friendly toilets. In case of other disabilities including medical conditions that are not visible, there is loss of ‘ability’ and quality of life.

Many disabled persons require modifications to vehicles; these come at enhanced costs and extra wear and tear to the vehicle. In addition, many disabled persons cannot drive because of their disabilities and therefore need to be driven. Coping with the trauma and adverse psychological impact of losing limbs/organs and living with different illnesses result in impairing of physical capacity to earn.

All these were taken into account while granting income tax exemption to the pensions of the disabled. Now, ignoring the realities of the problems of the disabled, Army Headquarters has endorsed this fiat, not for the so-called personnel who have misused or obtained their disability percentage by unfair means, on its own a vague allegation without statistical backup, but for all disabled/war-injured personnel! Clearly a case of “Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater”!

The compensatory package for the disabled must take into account the years and decades ahead of them as disabled persons; and the need to ensure that they lead an honourable and comfortable life. It is equally important that the message that goes to the environment is that the Army and the Government will ensure that adequate monetary compensation is paid to them.

Most of our military doctors are excellent. They have no ulterior motives as one gets to hear in the private sector. They are overworked because of manpower and other shortages, but are a dedicated lot. Great care is taken by Medical Boards while awarding percentage of disability during final medical boards prior to retirement. For this a very detailed compendium is available for reference, which matches diseases and percentages in great details. Yet, I was horrified to learn that adverse motives were being assigned to them!

Probity in the conduct of disabled officers and jawans is welcome and defaulters, if any, must be brought to book. However, the action taken by Army Headquarters in supporting the IT Exemption of all war-disabled and other-disabled smacks of collective punishment, which we were taught since our military academy days, should be avoided at all costs and certainly not at the whims and fancies of commanders and staff. Do punish the guilty if that really is the case, but the blanket withdrawal of IT Exemption from all indicates not enough application of mind!

The country prides itself on the uprightness and self discipline of military personnel but now the perception will gain ground that we military personnel are as bad as the rest. Is this the legacy that the present hierarchy of the army wants to leave behind? If Service Headquarters cannot give any monetary benefit to their personnel, let them not take away an essential privilege that has been given to them for nearly 100 years, since 1922.

This withdrawal of IT Exemption trivializes me personally, as having lost my leg in the 1965 India-Pakistan War, when I was a captain, I not only soldiered on and competed with my peers, but beat them everywhere by dint of hard work and professional competence till I reached the pinnacle, serving the nation and the army for decades, my disability notwithstanding.

The bottom line is that this order shows failure of command and control in many ways; loss of confidence by the army hierarchy on its own people; commanders losing the art of appreciating the downstream effects of their irrational decisions on soldiers' morale and their trust and faith in the command structure; and the Chetwodian dictum of "men under your command" has lost all it stood for.

A great pity indeed!

Cover Photograph: The writer, former Vice Chief of Army Staff Lt General Oberoi, founder of the War Wounded Federation, with other military peronnel participating in the Mumbai Marathon.