Ex-servicemen feel let down on one rank, one pension
ON Monday when Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, while presenting his interim budget in Parliament announced that the "government has decided in principle" to accept the long-standing demand of ex-servicemen for one rank, one pension (OROP), the loudest cheers came from Defence Minister A. K. Antony, sitting next to him. Normally, this declaration would have been sensational news. But Mr Chidambaram's thunder was stolen because it was widely known that a delegation of ex-servicemen had met Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and he had promised them that the wishes of the retired defenders of the country's freedom and frontiers would be respected.
However, neither Mr. Gandhi - who welcomed the announcement as "historic" -- nor Mr Chidambaram explained why the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government had resolutely refused to meet the legitimate demand of the retired officers and other ranks of the three armed forces for full five years. Whenever, during this period, I raised the issue with the bosses of the ministries of defence and finance, the off-the-record answer I got was: "The demand is just but the expenditure on it will be unbearable".
No wonder that ex-servicemen agitated vigorously, held protest rallies and returned their gallantry medals to their Supreme Commander, the President, but to no avail. What has happened then to persuade Mr Gandhi to take sudden interest in the welfare of retired soldiers, sailors and airmen and the government's change of mind almost overnight? The clear answer is: the general election barely two months away which the Congress party looks like losing, judging from all public opinion polls so far.
After all 14 lakh serving officers and men and 25 lakh ex-servicemen by themselves constitute a fairly large vote bank, and if you add members of their families, the number of voters soars as high as 20 million. Alas, that is precisely where the rub lies. Ex-servicemen who were initially happy with the budget speech were soon disappointed and irate. They felt let down because they discovered that the principle is one thing and its practice quite another. For the Finance Minister has provided only Rs 500 crore for equalising the pensions of all retirees of the same rank - and that, too, only prospectively - while the real requirement is at least Rs 2,500 crore a year. Mr. Chidambaram's promise to provide more money, if required, means nothing. The government's coffers don't have enough cash. Printing more currency notes would only add to the already high inflation.