January 20, 2015

Respite for 4000 soldiers... happy to have played a very small role.

It was a weekend in early August and I found myself watching an NDTV programme anchored by Barkha Dutt. One of the studio guests was an articulate young lawyer called Navdeep Singh. He spoke about how pension claims of disabled soldiers, those who had lost limb or suffered injury in the service of India, were often contested by the Ministry of Defence. In fact 90 per cent of the legal cases being fought by the Ministry related to disabled soldiers and their pension claims.

I was left stunned by the figures and by the sheer insensitivity of our bureaucracy. The following morning I phoned Barkha and got Navdeep’s number. After a series of chats with him, I decided on a Special Mention on the issue in the Rajya Sabha on August 11, 2014. In the Mention, I criticised the “shallow pretexts” being used to deny disabled soldiers pensions.

In many cases, the timing of injuries was questioned.“Military Boards have also been rejecting diseases such as neurosis and schizophrenia for being ‘constitutional’ in nature,” I said, “and not aggravated by service conditions. In contrast, pension claims for such diseases are routinely allowed by medical boards of the Central Armed Police Forces under the Home Ministry. Even though the Supreme Court has rendered a series of judgments in favour of the soldiers’ claims, the Ministry of Defence has continued to file appeals against claims at all stages.

The Income Tax Department does not go to the Supreme Court unless the claim amount exceeds Rs 25 lakh. In contrast, the Ministry of Defence hires top lawyers and takes its old soldiers to court for even a few thousand rupees. It is an unequal and unfair battle: “Most soldiers cannot afford the costs of protracted litigation and are forced to abandon their claims.

I requested the defence minister to direct his civil servants to stop filing such frivolous cases. My Special Mention was appreciated by fellow MPs. As I realised, I was not the first to bring the subject to the notice of the House. A parliamentary colleague, Smriti Irani of the BJP, had already done so.

Over the next few months I continued to stay in touch with Navdeep and to be exercised by the cause of our disabled veterans. Unfortunately, the government took no action. On December 10, 2014, the Supreme Court dismissed en masse appeals filed by the Defence Ministry in pension-related matters. After this, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar issued a statement that the Ministry would not be taking forward appeals against old and disabled soldiers in 4,000 separate cases.

Frankly, the Supreme Court has left the Ministry with no choice. This is not a time for point scoring but I do wish the defence minister had made his statement before the court order. I also hope a precedent has been set and in future disabled soldiers, and old soldiers generally, will not have to go from courtroom to courtroom to get due pensions from a government, a system and a country they risked their lives protecting.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress