Lt General VIJAY OBEROI | 3 DECEMBER, 2019
Discriminatory Policies Against Military Disabled Must Cease
Revisiting a Pending Issue on International Day for Disabled Persons
India, like most nations celebrates International Day for Disabled Persons on December 3. On this day, the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment confers National Awards on individuals, institutions, districts etc for outstanding work done by them in the field of empowerment of persons with disabilities.
Disabled persons belonging to the Indian Military are not included since The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, a highly progressive Act, is not applicable for military personnel; a few years after the PWD Act came into force, the government revoked its provisions specifically for the armed forces.
This was done at the behest of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on the grounds that a separate Act for the armed forces would be legislated. Although over two decades have passed since the PWD Act, the MoD has not found the time for enacting such legislation. Instead, many policy letters have been issued by the MoD dividing the military disabled in various segments to ostensibly save the exchequer some funds, leaving the military disabled to fend for themselves.
The latest in this genre is the June 24, 2019 notification by the CBDT, whereby disability pension and the pension of soldiers who have served their full tenure with the three services would no longer be exempt from income tax. The order said only soldiers who have been “invalidated” during military service will get exemption. This withdrawal of income tax exemption is yet another mindless exercise against possibly the weakest segment of the military, the disabled personnel
We are lucky that in the new government an erudite, mature and experienced political leader – Raj Nath Singh is heading the MoD. On July 8, the Defence Minister had announced that the decision relating to exempting disability pension from being taxed was under review; it was later reported that the earlier order would be rolled back. However, no formal decision has been received.
The neglect of the military disabled personnel is essentially on account of lack of empathy and no application of mind by bureaucrats, both civil and military, as also by their lackadaisical attitude.
This issue is the latest stick of the civil and military officials to beat the military disabled. Their logic is based on the assumption that if disabled military personnel continue to serve despite their disability, the government will be the loser as when they retire, they will not pay income tax on their pensions. They fail to realize that a disabled person who serves till his retirement pays much heftier amounts as income tax on his pay while in service, whereas a person who gets boarded out medically gets a pittance as his pension and hence his not paying income tax is only a notional saving.
As an example, in my over 40 years service in the army, four years prior to losing my leg in war and over 36 years subsequently I paid full income tax, which brought in more money to the exchequer than another captain who was wounded in the same war but opted to be boarded out!
It is also perplexing to note that withdrawal of IT exemption is only for military disabled personnel and not for others, like gallantry award winners; all civil government disabled employees; police personnel; and even for all members of Parliament and State Assemblies. All of them are better paid than the disabled veterans!
The stated reason for the order of the CBDT is that some military personnel (no data has been given, so it is merely someone’s hunch!) have contrived to become disabled with a view to getting exemption of income tax on their pensions. Let me clarify that it is not those few who are thus being punished, but in one broad sweep, all military personnel disabled in war, war-like operations or in peace have been clubbed together and have become criminals! Mind-boggling, is it not?
While ensuring probity everywhere is laudable, it is especially so in the military as they have an image of discipline, character and leadership qualities. However, it is strange that instead of singling out the culprits, in one stroke both the Finance and Defence Ministries and the Service Headquarters have sought to act against all military disabled personnel only. Action taken by them, especially by Service Headquarters is abhorrent to say the least.
This amounts to mass punishment, which no thinking person or organization must do. If some persons have fraudulently manipulated the system, find out who they are and if they are guilty, do take action against them. It appears that no analysis was carried out and I daresay, neither the MoD nor Army Headquarters have any reliable data base to sift genuine or manipulated cases! I am convinced that the staff has contrived to put together some sort of data on hearsay and conjectures! The military must not be run in this manner with shoddy data that makes everyone criminals!
Such actions by the higher command are in poor taste, self defeating and detrimental to the organizational morale. If Service Headquarters cannot give any benefits to its personnel, let it not try to take away a privilege which has been given to them by tradition; long usage; and for good reasons.
In the military, only commanders who lack self-confidence resort to en masse punishments, either when they are forced to do so by their superiors or to ingratiate themselves even more in the hope that it will please the boss! Other reasons are initiating action without understanding the problem or acting on unverified data, as is the present case.
Let me relate my experience, which is a microcosm of all disabled personnel of the military, as problems of disability for similarly disabled are the same whether they get boarded out medically soon after getting disabled or they decide to soldier-on in the service, This is the first aspect that is beyond the comprehension of our valiant bureaucrats of both varieties – civil and military! That is why they keep bringing out that there are differences between ‘invalidated’ soon after the onset of the disability and those who soldier-on and either seek premature retirement at suitable times or serve till their superannuation.
Despite the Supreme Court clarifying, more than once, that there are no separate categories of disabled personnel and all get ‘invalidated’ and hence are eligible for all privileges/perks/allowances and so on, without any differentiation.
I was severely wounded in the India Pakistan War of 1965, when I was a captain with four years service and lost my right leg. After hospitalisation, I decided to soldier-on in my own infantry battalion. Many believed that I and others similarly placed would soon fall out, but they were all proved wrong. Having made my decision, I competed with my peers and in most, if not all cases did better than them, resulting in my being selected for outstanding assignments both within the country and abroad. There was no question of seeking or being given favours!
I have no intention of listing out my assignments, all prestigious, but suffice to say that I had a glorious, highly professional innings and I was one of three war disabled army officers who reached the commanding heights of command as Army Commanders. This was due to our tenacity, hard work, self-confidence and professional capabilities! I was referred as an Icon due to my major achievements despite having only one leg, but today I find that I am a felon and being sought to be punished for contriving to lose my leg in battle, so that I get IT Exemption on superannuation!
Even after superannuation, I had to fight, through courts for getting legitimate entitlements of percentage of pay for disabilities and ‘broad-banding’ of percentages of disability, not only for myself but all military disabled personnel. My well-wishers in the bureaucracy, especially those in the Department of Ex Servicemen Welfare (DESW) did their utmost to fight me with a battery of ‘Sarkari’ lawyers, spending crores, but they failed miserably in the highest court of the land. Many other disabled military personnel also got their legitimate dues, which were unjustly withheld.
It is a great pity that despite a spate of favourable SC judgments, the MoD still insists on the rest to first go to court and then only they would get their legitimate dues! This is obviously irrational. Despite a very large number of judgments there are still many disabled Jawans who are yet to get their dues because they are either ignorant; cannot afford lawyer’s fees; or are living in far-flung villages/remote areas.
Let me now co-relate this with an actual example and another area of great concern to all military pensioners, including the disabled personnel. This relates to the much-touted state of the Ex Servicemen Health Scheme (ECHS), which is so badly starved of funds that empanelled hospitals have stopped taking pensioners through the ECHS, as their bills in crores have not been cleared, because our venerable Ministries of Defence and Finance are (deliberately?) withholding funds for the empanelled hospitals. Once again, my own experience related to both disability and ECHS tells the miserable tale.
My artificial leg needs a new socket, as the current one has become unserviceable, so following procedure; I obtained a Referral for the empanelled limb manufacturers. However, they refused to honour it since their bills amounting to over two crores had not been paid. So, I paid for the socket The exemption of Income Tax is also for such eventualities!
Lastly, both bureaucrats and IT officials have spread the canard that withdrawal of IT will not affect Jawans, but the reality is that every disabled officer, JCO and Jawan will be affected. In an earlier article I had highlighted how all disabled personnel have to spend more funds than their non-disabled comrades and hence they were correctly exempted from IT.
But while the governments’ stated policy is ‘sab ka vikas’, the civil and military officials want the most vulnerable section of the armed forces to fend for themselves and befuddle everyone by providing wrong and biased data!
Withdrawal of IT exemption shows failure of command and control in two distinct ways. Firstly, irrational and emotional decisions affect soldiers' morale adversely and their trust & faith in the command structure gets diluted.
Secondly, Chetwode's second dictum of "men under your command" is thrown to the winds because of failure of moral courage to stand up to injustice dispensed from above.
Would the Raksha Mantri please revisit and delve deeply in the issue and restore the status quo ante early?
Lt General Vijay Oberoi is a former Vice Chief of the Army and is President of an NGO - War Wounded Foundation