Don’t be miserly with disability pensions for faujis

disability pensions
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For a government that is so invested in its public imagery to promoting the cult of the soldier as the vanguard of the republic, it is strange to see so much soldiering angst over what many in uniform regard as petty bureaucratic moves to curtail their entitlements. The latest flashpoint is the June 24 circular by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) which makes previously tax-free disability pensions, which are paid over and above regular pensions to disabled soldiers, taxable. Only soldiers who are forced to leave service prematurely due to a disability incurred in service are exempt.

It means that other disabled soldiers, like Major General Ian Cardozo (retd) of 5 Gorkha Rifles, who famously amputated his leg with a khukri after a landmine blast in the 1971 war and then went on to become the Indian Army’s first war-disabled officer to command a regiment and brigade, will lose the tax-free status on their disability pensions. All because he soldiered on with one leg to complete service.

Not surprisingly, this has led to much heartburn with several distinguished veterans coming out openly in opposition. To be sure, defence minister Rajnath Singh has assured Parliament that he has sought a clarification from CBDT and emphasised that “under no circumstances” will the government let “whatever conveniences were earlier available in the case of valid disability cases” be reduced.

Equally, Army Headquarters, initially in an unsigned letter tweeted by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, and later directly on its own Twitter handle, has defended the tax move. It says it is concerned about misuse and the rising numbers of those receiving disability pensions for what it calls “lifestyle diseases”. The Army’s official view echoes the CBDT chairman’s justification that disability pensions were being misused. This line of reasoning is problematic. First, if there is indeed misuse and if some senior generals have been using their clout with army doctors to get uncalled-for disability status, then the army must fix its system and give exemplary punishment to those gaming it. Instead, its solution of withdrawing the benefit altogether for the entire fraternity is a callous form of collective punishment. It flies against any notion of natural justice.

As former vice chief Lt General Vijay Oberoi (retd) has written: “This withdrawal of IT exemption trivialises me personally, as having lost a leg in the 1965 India-Pakistan war, when I was a captain, I not only soldiered on and competed with my peers… serving the nation and the army for decades, my disability notwithstanding.”

Second, vague allegations of misuse are dangerous and stigmatising. It would be as absurd as believing that just because some erring soldiers indulged in human rights abuses in some cases, the whole force is responsible and must be punished. Like the army weeds out wrong-doers in those specific cases, it must do so in this case too.

Third, we must be careful about denigrating what are being called “lifestyle diseases”. Those receiving disability pensions are doing so under existing rules, duly certified by professional medical boards. If someone suffers oedema as a result of serving in high-altitude areas in Siachen or hypertension as a result of severe stress in zero-error jobs, should we grudge them their pensions?

Fourth, look at what other big countries do for their soldiers. A global benchmarking done by Col DPK Pillay (retd) and Mrityunjay Dubey at Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis shows that the US, the UK and Russia all pay tax-free benefits for disabilities. In the US, veterans can claim these for secondary disabilities (lifestyle diseases) which may come up long after leaving service. In the UK, veterans can claim tax-free benefits for mental disorders up to seven years after an incident.

Governments the world over, for instance, recognise PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Indian Army does not publish PTSD numbers but its soldiers serve longer tours of duty (2-3 years) in active areas than their American counterparts (6 months). As lawyer-soldier Maj Navdeep Singh (retd) has shown: “US military currently pays disability benefits to 4.75 million retirees. On the other hand, the number of such beneficiaries in India… is less than 0.2 million.”
Fifth, the amount spent on disability pensions is minuscule. This is why a committee set up in 2015 by the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar had recommended that all appeals pending against disabled soldiers in the Supreme Court — which dismissed about 800 such cases between 2014-17 — be withdrawn immediately.

Kautilya’s 2,000-year-old Arthashastra has a 30-point list of things that may negatively impact an army’s morale. On top of the list: not being given due honours, not being paid and not being healthy. As the government reviews disability pensions, heeding this ancient treatise would be beneficial.





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