The Indian Armed Forces have always stood tall, defending the nation through times of Peace and War. Historically, veterans and serving soldiers have received disability pensions as compensation for injuries sustained in the line of duty. However, the recent government decision to replace “disability pension” with “Impairment Relief” has sparked controversy.
The Genesis of the Issue
The government’s revised policy of doing away with disability pension Impairment Relief has caused serious concerns amongst the Veterans fraternity. Though the rules are applicable from 21 September 2023 and thereby not affecting the Veterans community, the concerns linger as the age-old adage that “one can leave the army, but the army never leaves you”. The bond with the organisation remains strong, even though the boots would have been hung years ago. While the government has pros and cons to this policy, it remains to be understood why this step-motherly treatment of an organisation has been tested over time in War and Peace.
This decision has raised questions about the government’s commitment to its protectors.
Changing Dynamics of Warfare
Over the years, it has now been accepted that conventional wars are less likely to be fought. Therefore, there has been more reliance on keeping force levels adequate to check a belligerent enemy at the Line of Actual Control or Line of Control. It is understood that despite using kinetic energy, all conflicts are resolved at the table.
The other factor is that the Indian Armed Forces, though trained to engage with an external enemy, has over several decades engaged with the government to be relieved of mundane duties of border guards as well as its deployment in the low-intensity conflict in the country’s various regions. The Border Security Force, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, Assam Rifles and Sashastra Seema Bal are primarily engaged in this duty. Only along the LAC and LoC the Indian Army is deployed on eyeball-to-eyeball contact.
The majority of personnel of the Indian Army remain deployed in locations better described as No War No Peace. Units are rotated every two years from peace stations to the field areas of deserts, high altitude/ super high altitude, and the North East.
The Training Phase and Its Challenges
The vagaries of service life commence from the basic training at the training academy, wherein the cadets are put through their paces to pass out as officers in the Indian Defence Forces.
The cadets under training who sustain injury are not compensated, and many face financial hardships as they are not authorised any medical care by the service hospitals and are not compensated by the Government of India.
The government can insure the cadets for a sum of Rs 10 Crores minimum to compensate for loss of life or injury. This life insurance should be extended for the officer’s lifetime.
The Complexity of Medical Categories
The Indian Armed Forces employ the SHAPE categorisation to classify the medical conditions of its personnel. Those aiming for leadership positions or looking to serve in operational areas must maintain a SHAPE I status.
While many soldiers and officers embrace the challenges of service, a few exploit the system. Taking advantage of medical categories allows some to avoid intensive training and prolonged field deployments. Over time, some even escalate their medical categories to increase their disability pensions.
The SHAPE categorisation is used in the Indian Armed Forces to indicate an officer’s (or soldier’s medical condition. S (Psychiatric), H (Hearing), A (Appendages), P (Physical- meaning everything other than the other four) and E (Eyesight). To remain eligible for command of troops, attend courses of instruction and serve in Operational Areas, All Ranks must maintain their medical category as SHAPE I.
While most service officers look forward to the challenges of serving in operational areas, a few malingerers take the system for a ride. The easiest is to become a medical category. Being a permanent medical category is a boon for such officers, who are now exempt from the Battle Proficiency Endurance Test and other physical fitness tests routinely carried out in active units and formations. These officers are exempt from collective training with troops, have restrictions on employment in field areas and therefore enjoy the life of a bank bencher in peace stations and no separation from their families.
With an old-school boys network, the degree of the medical category is enhanced every few years; therefore, the compensation for disability pension is tax-free.
On the other side of the spectrum, as the officers approach the end of their service, the lure of the tax-free pension looms large and, therefore, the steps initiated to take advantage of a system for personal gains.
There is a known case of a senior officer at an Army Commander level, a category due to retire in several months; the Service Chief died in harness, and therefore, he was one of the contenders to become the chief. Wheels were moved, and the officer became SHAPE – I. However, the opportunity passed the officer, and he was downgraded to a lower category in no time.
Guide to Medical Officers (GMO) 2023: Super Specialists
It would be prudent to understand how the medical fraternity views this change.
Those at the helm in the office of Director General Armed Forces Medical Services have vetted what goes into formulating GMOs are all super specialists. They are undoubtedly very good professionals, but that does not automatically translate into being empathetic human beings.
Alternatively, they can even be good administrators. Having spent many of their careers in large metros, they must be aware of the trials and tribulations of armed forces personnel in remote, inaccessible or challenging terrain where elements could sometimes prove more lethal than the enemy.
More so, if someone has spent close to 75% of their service career in Delhi and the remaining 25% in a radius of 500 km from Delhi, one can appreciate a flawed understanding of the armed forces. Lectures or sand model discussion in armed forces service courses like Basic Courses, Junior Command Courses or Senior Command Courses cannot substitute for a posting to a Field Area, CI Ops Area or High Altitude Area (HAA) to see first-hand the exacting conditions under which armed forces work.
With no fresh scientific inputs, it boggles the mind how the disability percentage granted in all previous GMOs for hypertension was slashed from 30% to 5% in GMO 2023—absolutely no logic.
There are numerous other examples in GMO 2023 of lifestyle diseases like diabetes or thyroid disorders where disability percentages have been pruned to around 5% to 10%. They knew these diseases and their deadly complications could take years to manifest. There appears to be only one objective – deny disabled personnel their rightful dues.
Since the disability element only comes in if there is a 20% disability. At the same time, the entire world and civilian counterparts in India are being liberal in recognising granting such disabilities. They are foxed why most well-read in AFMS, the super specialists, would do such things unless dictated to do so.
If one does not follow what is expected, the next rank would be at stake, or a post-superannuation assignment would be in jeopardy. One can easily forget about a VSM, AVSM or PVSM.
Increased educational qualifications could come bundled with increased empathy and moral courage to say NO. However, courage of conviction, like elsewhere, is a rare commodity.
Comptroller and Auditor General Report
The government announced the new rules in September, five months after the Comptroller and Auditor General asked the defence ministry to analyse why personnel were drawing disability pensions; almost 40% of officers and 18% of personnel below officer rank (PBOR) retire yearly. The previous rules were promulgated 15 years ago.
The government believes it is not to save money but to efficiently manage the armed forces cadre.
What message do we send by having a large number of people in a low medical category is the observation of the CDS on the CAG report.
A medical downgrade following a disability entitles a soldier to better retirement benefits. On average, for the same rank, a disability pension can be 20% to 50% more than a normal one and comes with tax exemption.
The CAG report also flagged concerns about disability pensions being awarded on account of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Earlier, there were incentives to claim disability pension. Only 3-5% claimed this pension then, but the CAG report put the figure at 40%.
Surprisingly, the CAG has, in the last 39 years, never flagged the issue of cadre review of the Armed Forces since 1984.
Under the old rules, all cancers, except those caused by smoking, were deemed aggravated by service in case of worsening during military service. However, all cancers have been removed from the list, and only those caused by radiation or exposure to chemicals during service will be included in the attributable list.
The association says all types of diabetes have been excluded from the attributable/aggravation list, whereas the effect of stress and strain is medically well-known to affect insulin levels.
Bronchial asthma, which was always connected with service conditions, is not on the list anymore. Under the new guidelines, ‘primary hypertension’ is not linked to service conditions.
Prolapsed Intervertebral Disk (PIVD) and spondylolysis have been taken off the aggravation list despite common knowledge that service conditions aggravate these disabilities and have always been a part of the aggravation clause.
The definition of Disability Pension/Disability Element of Pension for those who retire on superannuation or are discharged from service, or discharged voluntarily has been changed to ‘Impairment Relief’ so that it is taken out of the tax exemption regime wherein ‘disability element and service element of disability pension’ are exempted from Income Tax.
A similar step was taken for the war injury element/pension by changing its name to “War Injury Relief” [See Rule 4(i) & 4(k) of new rules]. It has also been stated that these would no longer be treated as pensions, meaning there shall now be a grey area in the future over dearness allowance/dearness relief (DA/DR) admissible on the same and also the merger of pension when DA exceeds 50 per cent.
Psychiatric/ behavioural disorders have been linked with only combat areas and three-month continuous service in high altitudes as if the military service being away from family or inability to cope with domestic issues due to military service has no link with psychiatric disorders.
The issue of disability pensions should not be seen in isolation as it is the Armed Forces only who have not had a Cadre Review since 1984, compared to the 60 other government organisations, including the IAS, IPS, IFS, Class A services and Central Armed Police Forces.
Inaction by the Service Headquarters and Ministry of Defence is a good reason to believe that led to the enhanced number of disability pensions.
The CDS has to seek out the root causes rather than slash the percentages of disability and removal of diseases from the disability list. The military leadership has to take on this in a more responsible and accountable manner rather than throwing its cadres under the bus and disallowing the few privileges that were authorised to the men in uniform.
The bond between a nation and its armed forces is sacred. While policy changes are necessary to address system inefficiencies or prevent misuse, ensuring the well-being and morale of those who risk their lives for the nation is equally important.
The transition from disability pensions to impairment relief requires thoughtful deliberation, taking into account the legitimate concerns of the armed forces community.
Note: The author took Pre-Mature Retirement in April 2007 in SHAPE I and has served in the operational areas of Sri Lanka, Nagaland, Manipur, Jammu, Bhaderwah in Kashmir.