Wednesday, 29 October 2014

 ‘Major Saab’ suffers rank indifference
The Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (DESW), in its true bureaucratic lack of empathy and common sense has created more confusion and heartburn for senior ex-servicemen.
Vijay Oberoi
The Tribune, Chandigarh
Tuesday, October 28, 2014, Chandigarh, India

MANY veteran majors continue to be treated shoddily by our government, as manifested by the policies issued by a department of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), ironically named the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare (DESW)! This department has the dubious distinction of doing zilch for the veterans, since it was carved out from the MoD and placed under a secretary level bureaucrat.

Although this piece talks of only ‘majors’, it is equally applicable to the equivalent ranks in the navy (lieutenant commander) and the air force (squadron leader).

The rank of ‘major’ has always been a pivotal rank in the army. Earlier, an officer reached the substantive rank of ‘major’ after 13 years of tough service in various locations and climates. Now, after a change in policy, officers are promoted to the rank of major after only six years service and the erstwhile major’s rank has now been upgraded to that of lt-col.

As youngsters, we used to look forward to the rank of ‘major’, as one was then considered mature, senior and experienced to command a sub-unit, i.e. company/ squadron/ battery. These were the appointments that were the work-horse of the army in all facets of functioning; whether in operations, intelligence, training, logistics or administration. Majors also held important appointments as staff officers, instructors or other specified appointments. With the rank, one also earned the privilege of being called a ‘field officer’, which gave two immediate benefits. Firstly, one became entitled to a full salute at the Quarter Guard or by any other sentry on duty. Secondly, one earned the honour of wearing spurs on one’s half-wellington boots, while donning the formal summer or winter Mess dresses, in some regiments like mine.

The major change in the fortunes of ‘majors’ came when a policy decision was taken in the late 1980’s that henceforth the first selection grade rank would be lieutenant colonel (lt-col), instead of major. This resulted in captains becoming majors after completing six years service and majors becoming lt. cols after 13 years of service. Thereafter, selection ranks would commence. The positive effect of this new policy was that those who were not selected at the first selection stage would at least retire in the higher rank of lt -col, instead of a major and would get higher pension. While this was a welcome development, the MoD forgot to give this largesse to those majors who had already retired.

In a classic case of bureaucratese, while serving majors became lt- cols on reaching the stipulated 13 years of service and drew enhanced pay and allowances, the majors who had already retired after completing their stipulated years of service were denied the pension of lt-cols. When manpower policies are changed, as in this case, for meeting the aspirations of a particular group of personnel, as well as for better management of the cadre, it is incumbent on the government to ensure that all past cases get placed in the same category and draw the same emoluments as their counterparts who were upgraded to a higher rank.

In this case, all retired majors should have automatically been given the pension of lt-cols, even though the higher rank could not be conferred on them. Instead of doing so, the MoD adopted the bureaucratic way of simply ignoring the large number of veteran majors, depriving them of their legitimate emoluments. MoD forgot that there was no difference between those who went home as majors on superannuation and those who were in service on that date and were promoted as lt-cols; in terms of years of service, professional expertise, exposure to dangers of losing life or limb, and all hardships associated with serving in inhospitable/uncongenial areas and climates.

After the 5th Pay Commission recommendations were accepted, the MoD did make amends by issuing a letter dated 21 November, 1997, that stated that officers who became substantive majors on or after 01 January, 1996, would be granted the scale of lt-col, without increase in the rank. However, similarly placed substantive majors who had retired prior to the magic date of 01 January,1996, would not be eligible for this largesse! The predictable result was that one more category was created, whereby some veteran majors started receiving pay and consequently pension of lt-cols, while the older lot whose needs and requirements were obviously more, were left in the lurch. This was yet another case of creating categories within categories; which the bureaucrats seem to enjoy doing, possibly to confuse everyone.

The initial blame for the distress caused to all veteran majors must be borne by the service headquarters. At the time of the policy change, the service headquarters, on whom all ranks — serving or retired — look up to for ensuring that their welfare and concerns are fully met, failed in their duty and the veteran majors were left high and dry. However, the major part of the blame must go to the MoD and specifically to DESW, for it is their responsibility to ensure that no military person gets an unfair deal.

It will be a monumental shame if these forgotten warriors of yore go to their ‘happy hunting grounds’carrying a grudge against the system.

The writer is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff

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