Updated: April 3, 2021 9:55:45 am
In 2012, Shubham Gupta’s dream of becoming an Army officer came to an abrupt end. He suffered serious injuries at the National Defence Academy (NDA) that April, and was given a motorised wheelchair upon discharge from the Military Hospital in Kirkee, near Pune, two years later.
But seven months ago, with the wheelchair’s life running out, the hospital informed the 29-year-old Bathinda resident in a letter that they cannot issue a new one because he does not fall under the category of ex-serviceman and is not a member of Ex-Servicemen Contributory Health Scheme (ECHS).
On March 19, that letter was posted on Twitter by Ankur Chaturvedi, another ex-cadet who was medically boarded out of NDA. He highlighted the plight of Gupta, a quadriplegic who was left with 100 per cent disability during military training.
Today, that letter is at the centre of a debate within the Defence community on the need to sanction ex-serviceman status for officer trainees who get disabled during military training.
Gen VP Malik (retd), former Chief of Army Staff, responded to the tweet by requesting Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh to intervene. A day later, the Chief Minister responded that directions had been issued to provide the ex-cadet with a new motorised wheelchair.
However, while Gupta thanked the former Army Chief and the Chief Minister, his father, S C Gupta, told The Indian Express that his son should get “what is due to him” — not through charity.
“He joined the NDA in June 2010 and was injured in April 2012 when he was in the fourth term. He was taking part in swimming exercises and during a dive into the pool, his head hit the bottom and this left him with shattered vertebrae. He should get what is his due to him,” he said.
This is not an isolated case, say veterans who have been campaigning to ensure that officer trainees get ex-servicemen status and disability pension. At present, they are given an ex gratia amount per month and, in certain cases like Gupta’s, an ex-gratia disability amount too.
Significantly, there is no such bar for jawans. A recruit who joins a training centre for other ranks is counted as being in military service from the first day of training. And if a recruit is removed from training due to disability, he gets full disability pension and ex-serviceman status with resettlement options and other facilities.
According to Chaturvedi, who is now in a senior management position in a multinational company, all that disabled officer trainees want is disability pension with respect to the rank trained for, medical cover like ECHS, and option for employment in government departments in officer cadre.
An advocate who has been pursuing such cases says there is a “stark difference” between the disability ex gratia that an officer trainee gets and the disability pension of a civilian officer trainee and jawans. “At 20 per cent disability, a trainee jawan gets a disability pension of Rs 18,000 per month while a civilian officer trainee gets Rs 36,465 per month. An officer trainee in the Army in contrast gets only Rs 12,240 per month,” said the advocate, who did not wish to be named.
In 2015, Chaturvedi wrote to the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar who set up a committee of experts under former Adjutant General Lt Gen Mukesh Sabharwal (retd) to reduce litigation and address the issue of disabled officer cadets also.
The committee recommended the release of “proper disability pension at officer rates” and the change of “nomenclature of their pension… to disability pension rather than ex gratia so that they can be termed as ‘ex-servicemen’ and enjoy all facilities admissible to pensioners”.
But with no relief in sight, a group of 109 former cadets of various academies, who had been medically boarded out, wrote to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in September 2020. “We joined the Academy at a young age and lost precious career forming years making it almost impossible for us to go back to rewarding careers… Some of us are disabled for life which in itself makes us irrelevant for physically taxing careers,” the letter read.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence did not respond to calls and a text message sent on Friday by The Indian Express on the issue.
In January 2021, the Chief of Defence Staff’s Secretariat responded to a suggestion for a group insurance scheme for disabled cadets made by Brig Kartar Singh (retd), president of Indian Ex-Services League.
The letter pointed out that a number of measures had been instituted for cadets of various military academies: Rs 12.5 lakh as ex gratia in case of death and monthly ex gratia of Rs 9,000 per month; disablement ex gratia of Rs 16,500 for 100 per cent disabled cadets with pro rata reduction to 20 per cent. In addition, it said, a constant attendant allowance of Rs 6,750 is also paid to those eligible.
Chaturvedi says it has been a long road so far.
“The oldest case that I could trace was that of Flight Cadet Vijay Singh who was undergoing training at the Air Force Academy after passing out of the NDA. On May 30,1974, during one of his training sorties, his aircraft developed a technical snag and he did a forced landing resulting in severe injuries, making him unfit for service,” he said.
After Singh wrote to the Chief Justice of India — the letter was admitted as a writ petition — the Government granted him employment of equal status, as a Defence Estate Officer.
There have been exceptions, too. In December 2012, the Ministry of Defence accepted the then Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne’s request to grant a commission to Flight Cadet Rajkumar Herojit Singh who became a paraplegic after his trainer aircraft crashed. Herojit was granted commission as a ground duties officer.
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