“They are in the line of fire. They sacrifice their life for you and for us. This is the least you could do for them.” It was the message by the Supreme Court to the Centre, which was fighting against the ex-servicemen of Army over a modest increase in their disability pension.
Coming to the rescue of around 15,000 soldiers, the court rejected an appeal by the government against an order of the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), which had extended the benefits of an extra amount in their pensions on account of disability due to service conditions.
On Wednesday, a bench led by Chief Justice of India H L Dattu expressed its disgruntlement over the government’s insistence on denying the benefit to the soldiers on the ground that it would burden the exchequer with an additional Rs. 1500 crore.
“So what? The government can have at least this much of budget for its soldiers who are dying for the people of this country everyday. What is the point of having these memorials and placards saluting our defence personnel if you litigate agianst the disabled soldiers till the Supreme Court. You should pay them,” said the bench, also comprising Justices Madan B Lokur and A K Sikri.
With the writing on the wall, the government’s law officer chose not to argue the appeal further and said they would comply with the order. The bench disposed of around 880 appeals against the AFT order on this issue.
Among those who will be benfitted by this order is also Army’s former Vice-Chief Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi, who lost his leg in a gun battle in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war. Oberoi soldiered on without any financial benefit whilst in service but was categorised as 70 per cent disabled when he retired as the army’s vice chief in 2001.
When the 5th Pay Commission enhanced this to 75 per cent, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) refused to pay. On Oberoi’s petition, the Chandigarh bench of the AFT, in 2010 allowed “broad-banding” benefits to all disabled personnel irrespective of when they left service.
Under the “broad-banding” policy, three bands were to judge disability across the board. Up to 50 per cent disability, a person was to be given the benefits of a 50 percent disability holder; a person with 51-75 per cent disability was to be given 75 per cent disability benefits; while a person with 76-100 per cent disability was to be given 100 per cent disability benefits. The policy was introduced to avoid subjectivity and variance in calculating disability percentage.
This broad-banding was accepted and implemented by the MoD but the benefits were granted to only those who were removed from service by the government on medical grounds, and not to those who retired after their full service. The AFT removed this anomaly and held that all the soldiers shall get the benefit under the policy.
The Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (DESW), which comes under the MoD and looks into the grievances and other pension matters of retired defence personnel, filed an appeal against the AFT judgement in February 2012 despite an adverse opinion by the Army Headquarters.