How Can The Nation Disown Our Young Brave Hearts : Disabled Cadets Fight A protracted Battle for their Rights
Sometime during the middle of last year, I came across a petition on Change.org Justice for Shubham – a disabled Indian Army Officer Cadet left unattended by our nation! The heading intrigued me; How could this be true in a nation that literally worships its armed forces? The petition claimed that Shubham was injured and disabled during training and in return of pledging his youth to the nation, he was given a pittance of monthly financial aid, named ex-gratia and no benefits normally available to disabled Ex-servicemen and surprisingly – Zero Medical Facility.
I found this hard to digest and started my investigation. My investigation revealed that from 1985 over 400 Cadets have been disabled in training and boarded from all the Training Academies of the Armed forces. On paper and as per Article 14 of the Constitution of India all of them need to be treated at par but my research has concluded a wide disparity in treatment being meted out to them.
The oldest case that I could trace was that of Flight Cadet Vijay Singh who had joined the National Defence Academy in January 1970. After passing out of NDA he was undergoing training at the Air Force Academy. On 30th May 1974 during one of his training sorties his aircraft developed a technical snag, and he did a forced landing resulting in severe injuries making him unfit for service. He was boarded out on medical grounds. After protracted correspondence, he was sanctioned Disability Pension.
On 30th Dec 1986 Flight Cadet Vijay Singh wrote a letter to The Honourable Chief Justice of India seeking reinstatement in the Indian Air Force. The letter was admitted as a Writ Petition No 168 of 1987. After numerous hearings, the Union of India agreed to grant him employment of equal status and the Writ Petition was disposed of on 26th September 1988. Vijay Singh was appointed as a Defence Estate Officer and retired after completing his tenure.
Another interesting case that I came across was also of an Ex-NDA Cadet boarded out from Airforce Academy 1982. He was also Granted Disability Pension but surprisingly it was never disbursed. In 1999 his Resurvey Medical board was initiated and finally conducted in 2004. When his file was sent to PCDA it was discovered that PCDA did not have any records of his original PPO. As per individuals familiar with the case, the correspondence is still on with the authorities to locate his original sanction letter and get his dues.
On 16th of April 1996, the Ministry of Defence started a Scheme for Grant of Ex Gratia Awards in cases of Death/Disablement of Cadets due to causes attributable to or aggravated by military training. An ex-gratia award of Rs 375 per month and Disability award of Rs 600 per month for 100% Disability was sanctioned. The Policy letter did not overrule or give any reference to any provisions already in force.
In this policy, it was categorically stated that these awards will not be treated as pension for any purpose thus depriving the Cadets of the status of Ex-Servicemen and all other benefits including medical treatment post disablement and boarding out.
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This amount has since been revised periodically and as on date the ex-gratia award of Rs 9000 per month is in force. This amount has been arrived at by linking it to the minimum pension payable to the lowest level of Central Government employee. This Scheme provided some relief but fell well short of the logical dues.
The Cadets are selected and trained for a Group A post and being equated to the lowest level of Central Government employee is unreasonable. This paltry sum appears even more iniquitous by being called “ex gratia” and not “pension”; it deprives the disabled Cadets of the status of ESM and a chance of leading a life of dignity.
In December 2012 defence ministry bowed to pressure from the air force and in contravention of the policy in force, accepted Air Chief Marshal N.A.K Browne’s plea to grant a commission to Flight cadet Rajkumar Herojit Singh who became paraplegic after his trainer aircraft crashed. The youth from Manipur was a topper at the Air Force Academy and was training to fly fighter aircraft. Herojit Singh is not the only case where Indian Armed Force has granted the commission to a physically disabled cadet.
As per the notification by Union Public Service Commision Technical Graduates selected to join the Training Academies are Granted Provisional commission. In a recent Case, a Lady Cadet of the Air Force Academy was disabled during training. She was granted commission with retrospective effect and was granted full disability pension, but the Technical Graduates of the Officers Training Academy and Indian Military Academy continue to be granted only the Ex-Gratia.
With the advent of the digital era, some of the boarded-out cadets connected and initiated coordinated efforts for justice. An ex-NDA boarded out from IMA GC Ashutosh Kumar and GC Someshwar Trivedi from OTA Chennai were instrumental in getting the recommendation for granting Disability Pension to disabled Cadets included in the Joint Services Memorandum submitted to the 7th Central Pay Commission. The 7th Pay commission rejected the recommendation on a flawed assumption that “Cadets are not on Duty”. Various pleas and representations failed to solicit any positive response.
In 2015 Cadet Ankur Chaturvedi wrote to the then Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar about the issues of disabled Cadets. The response of Mr Parrikar was a pleasant surprise for Ankur Chaturvedi.
He took a personal interest in the case and even visited the home of a disabled Cadet at Meerut and promised him justice. He set up a committee of experts under the Lt Gen Sabbarwal (Retd) to reduce Litigation. The Committee dwelt on a lot of issues including that of disabled officer cadets and recommended the following:
In view of the above, the Committee recommends that Cadets may be released proper disability pension at officer rates (without the MSP element) along with broad-banding, and the nomenclature of their pension be changed to disability pension rather than ex-gratia so that they can be termed as ‘ex-servicemen’ and enjoy all facilities admissible to pensioners.
This would also remove the disparity between such Cadets vis-à-vis Recruits and similarly places civilian trainees. Even otherwise, we expect all concerned to be gracious in such issues and not indulge in surgical objections to hold back benefits. Such issues need to be tackled with a positive frame of mind rather than with an aim of fishing for negative connotations.
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Officers holding Provisional Short Service Commission during training are as it is entitled to full disability benefits at officer rates which should not be denied to them on hypertechnical pretexts. The offsetting of loss of years spent in the training academies as mentioned above may also be considered in consultation with the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the cadets must be supported through professional courses which would enable their resettlement in civil life.
Once the Sabbarwal Committee submitted its report recommending Change in Nomenclature of the ex-gratia Mr Parrikar actively pursued it for implementation till he relinquished office. With the departure of Mr Parrikar from MoD the matter lost momentum. Despite explicit confirmation from the three service Headquarters and other departments, the Department of Ex-Servicemen welfare did not implement the recommendation.
In December 2017 Ankur Chaturvedi approached the Petitions Committee of the Rajya Sabha with a plea to implement recommendations of the Raksha Mantri’s Committee of Experts. The Rajya Sabha Secretariat sought a response from DESW. The DESW malignantly interpreted the recommendation to mean that Cadets be covered under the Army act and be granted commission on the first day of training.
In its response to Rajya Sabha Secretariat the DESW malevolently concealed the fact that in response to its initial correspondence, the service headquarters had concurred with the recommendations of the committee and stated that the recommendations of the committee cannot be implemented. It chose to ignore the fact that the Committee of Experts was abreast of all the negative connotations brought out by them in their response to Rajya Sabha and had given its recommendation after due deliberation.
The Committee had clearly mentioned in its report that, “Even otherwise, we expect all concerned to be gracious in such issues and not indulge in surgical objections to hold back benefits. Such issues need to be tackled with a positive frame of mind rather than with an aim of fishing for negative connotations.”
This response of the Ministry exemplifies the comment of the committee. While just changing the name of the current nomenclature from “Ex Gratia” to “pension” would have resolved the matter some fertile minds in the Ministry have incorporated the point of Granting Commission during training with the sole objective of complicating the matter.
DESW was directed to implement the recommendation but instead sought clarifications from various departments for implementation of the committee recommendations. The summary of the opinion provided to DESW is given below:
DESW further sought opinion of D(AG) which was eventually referred to Judge Advocate General’s Branch, which is the apex legal body for opinion on defence matters. Judge Advocate General’s Branch has clearly stated that there is no requirement of amending any of the existing provisions of Army Rule or service condition but only a clause needs to be inserted in pension regulation for Army-2008, Part-I, which will serve the purpose.
After a lot of correspondence and deliberation across various departments a note No B/33152/AG/PS-2(a)/_/C(Pen/Policy/2018 was prepared in November 2018 and put up for the signatures of the Under Secretary but unfortunately was not signed. I request you to please instruct the Under Secretary to Government of India to immediately sign the letter.
This kind act will provide relief to the disabled Officer Cadets who chose to serve the nation at a very young age, suffered grave injuries on duty and have been left to fend for themselves unceremoniously. The total financial impact of this decision on the Government will be less than 10 Cr per years.
When contacted by this correspondent Ankur Chaturvedi expressed faith in the parliament to correct this historic wrong. He also said that he is trying to get an appointment with Rajnath Singh to appraise him of this grave injustice and is hopeful that like RM Manohar Parrikar he will also be empathetic to the cause.
After studying all the facts, I am constrained to conclude that the points made out in the petition on change.org are indeed true and the brave young men and women disabled in training to guard our frontiers deserve better.