NEW DELHI: Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, according to media reports, has sought a report over the short supply of medals that has forced soldiers to buy duplicate ones from the market.

The medals are for various achievements including bravery, distinguished service among others. According to sources, while those medals awarded at investiture ceremonies were available, lakhs of others awarded over the years are not.

This includes those given for completing a certain number of years in service, serving in difficult areas or taking part in various operations. The situation has been such that only a handful of medals have been officially issued over the last 7-8 years while over 10 lakh medals are pending. Media quoting a defence source said, "The Defence Minister has sought a report on the situation and why it (the medals) has not been issued for so many years. The Medals Department of MoD is responsible for issue of medals to the Armed Forces.”

Defence Minister Parrikar should also ask for figures of how many medals were dispatched by post to soldiers say in the last 10 years long ‘after’ after they had retired from service. The numbers would likely shock him.

Of course, the Medal Section is quite capable of obfuscating the real figures. According to an unnamed source in the Ministry of Defence, non-availability was due to some “financial constraints”. This is nothing but a weak bureaucratic cover up especially considering the crores of rupees from the defence budget that gets surrendered each financial year.

Soldiers perforce have to buy duplicates of their hard-earned medals. One favourite place for purchasing duplicate medals is Gopinath Bazar in Delhi Cantonment. The difference between the original and the duplicate is that the name of the soldier and his service number is engraved on the rim of the original medal.

Why does a soldier buy a duplicate medal? Not understood by many, it is what medals he wears on his chest that adds to his ‘izzat’. He does not favour his chest bare without the medals due to him and – consequently less medals compared to his contemporaries. And why should he not receive his medals promptly rather tham several years later when he has earned them through sweat and blood. MoD’s Medal Section will of course excuse the inexcusable to the Defence Minister, blaming shortage of funds and the like.

The problem of giving the medals to soldiers’ years after these were awarded is endemic and the actual issue is institutionalized corruption.

Fancy what a MoD official had revealed some years ago. When the Government of India decided to award the 50-year Independence Medal to all security forces (Armed Forces, Para Military Forces, Central Armed Police Forces and Police personnel included), the overall contract worked out to some Rs 100 crores. This was with the cost of every individual medal worked out at Rs 100, even though the duplicate was available in Gopinath Bazar for less than half that price.

Awarding the contract itself took considerable time because vendors were being hunted who could pass on Rs 20 crores under the table before the agreement was inked. Thus not only is awarding the contract delayed, timely delivery of medals becomes a casualty with no pressure on the vendor with the money jingling in the pockets.

It is also very likely that the same vendor or vendors, who produce the actual medals, also makes the duplicates. This can be easily verified from the shops selling duplicate medals.

Obviously, delayed delivery of actual medals boosts the sales of duplicate medals. After all, the vendor has to somewhat make up, if not completely, the bribe paid while securing the contract for delivering the actual medals.

What the defence minister may wish to examine is that why even today, is the cost of the duplicate medal less than the real one and how much should it actually cost to engrave the service number and the name of the awardees on the rim of the medal? Incidentally, the engraving of the name and service number is generally quite crude.

In this age of advanced metallurgy, it certainly should not make such a vast difference between the cost of the real medal and the duplicate one. Inordinately delayed issue of medals has been a perpetual problem perhaps from the time since Independence because of deep rooted institutionalized corruption, and this needs to be probed and eradicated.

It remains to be seen what explanations / excuses the Medal Section will put forward and what decision the Defence Minister will take. It is quite possible that there may be no further news on the issue in the media.

(Lt General P.C.Katoch (retired) is a veteran officer of the Special Forces)