As we celebrate the 70th Indian Army Day today, January 15, we remember that it was on this day in 1949 that General (later Field Marshal) K M Cariappa took over as the first Commander-in-Chief of Indian armed forces after independence, from General Sir F R R Bucher, the last British Commander-in-Chief.
The Indian army represents many things to many people, and most of all the selfless and professional approach to service of the Nation. As we celebrate the victories and salute the sacrifices of our soldiers, it is important to ensure that we look after our men and women in uniform and their families, not only during their service tenures but also after they have served and retired.
Since 1949, our army has grown to become the third largest army in the world. It is indeed a matter of pride that the Indian army remains a voluntary service, that our men and women “choose” to serve the Nation, and although a provision for military conscription exists, it has never been imposed. The Army has given us 21 Param Virs, including Major Som Nath Sharma, PVC, Lt Arun Khetarpal, CQH Abdul Hamid, Capt Vikram Batra, and thousands of others who epitomise the army motto under which they serve – “Service before self”.
Over the years, the government has made provisions for several schemes and benefits for the Armed Forces, its veterans and their families. For instance, the One Rank One Pension scheme (OROP), a matter I have pursued relentlessly since the time I stepped into Parliament in 2006, was implemented in 2015. It is the biggest and most significant welfare measure for veterans in post-Independence India by any government and will benefit over 20 lakh veterans and widows/families.
Then there are health amenities under which serving personnel and their families/dependents are provided all medical facilities and ex-servicemen and their dependents are provided medial facilities under the Ex-servicemen Contributory Health Scheme (ECHS). The ECHS scheme has come to benefit many however, there are serious issues of withdrawal of empanelment of hospitals due to delay in reimbursement of payment, severe shortage of medicines and lack of specialists in ECHS polyclinics in far flung areas of the country.
Along with this they are made given travel concessions, while gallantry awardees and Veer Naris (widows) are given special concessions. Army personnel as well as war widows are given subsidised housing at selected stations in the country.
Besides all the welfare schemes, one of the biggest areas that requires reform remains that of post retirement re-employment of our soldiers’. For starters, I believe it is a national waste to allow a 35-year-old jawan or a 54-year-old officer to retire in the prime of his life. With better medical facilities and fitter soldiers, it is probably a good time to rethink the retirement age of soldiers. Each year around 50,000 soldiers retire from the armed forces with about 56% of these being below the age of 40. These highly trained and disciplined men would be an asset to any organisation. The re-skilling and absorption of armed forces personnel into lateral institutions of government is important. Lateral placements will meet the twin objectives of placing skilled, dedicated and professional men and women in government organisations, and reducing the pension bill and costs to the government. The government must also do its bit in providing incentives to private organisations in terms of tax benefits to encourage them to hire more ex-servicemen.
Nothing can compensate for the hardships our soldiers face serving in the most extreme conditions – at Siachen glacier at an altitude ranging 17,800 – 25,300 feet, where temperatures remain sub-zero throughout the year and plunge to minus 50 degree Celsius in winter. Many of our bravehearts have laid down their lives in the snowstorms and avalanches guarding this highest battle-field in the world. In border areas, our soldiers are deployed in remote regions without any basic amenities and yet they have to remain ready in preparedness for war. It is our moral obligation to ensure their families do not face any hardships and difficulties.
In 2012, with the objective of ensuring that the commitment of the men and women of our armed forces, veterans and their families are enshrined in law, I had submitted a Private Members Bill – the Armed Forces Covenant Bill – which is still pending discussion. The Bill prescribes a commitment between the people of India and the armed forces community serving as well as retired, and their immediate families pledging a duty of care and improving support towards them in return for their bravery and sacrifices made for protecting the nation.
The bravery and sacrifices made by our Army soldiers in protecting the nation at the borders as well as fighting enemies within needs no validation. What they deserve is our utmost respect, our motivation and our support.
As for me, I consider it an honour and privilege to do what I can for the veterans, forces and their families. I consider it my way of serving those who serve the nation.
So, today, on Army Day, as you thank the ones who serve and have served, and pay homage to soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for the Nation – remember to also pledge your support to the Indian Army. JaiHind!