DESW has actually squandered government funds by paying huge amounts to lawyers to fight the rulings of the Armed Forces Tribunals (AFT’s) and High Courts in the Supreme Court (SC), to deny legitimate dues to the war-disabled. If this situation gets perpetuated, it will have a highly adverse effect on future intakes and morale. Data-banks must be dynamic need to be continuously updated. The existing NGOs exclusively dealing with the war-disabled need encouragement, instead of being viewed as interfering irritants. Meetings of all stake holders should be organized. Disabled personnel spend extra on mobility equipment, transportation, diseases on account of lack of exercise/movement, limb/organ/wounds maintenance and so on.
by Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi (Retd)
“The greatest casualty is being forgotten” – Motto of Wounded Warrior Project of USA
Wars and warlike operations invariably result in casualties to military personnel. Broadly, these are of two types – ‘killed in action’ and ‘wounded in action’. From the latter category some wounded personnel return for duty, while others become permanently disabled. Their disability is assessed by a medical board in percentage terms.
Those ‘war disabled’ personnel who opt to carry on ‘soldiering’ can serve till their superannuation. They are eligible for promotion, provided they compete with their peers and are found suitable, but they do not get any concessions on account of their disability. Those who do not wish to be retained in service are boarded out on medical grounds and are eligible for War Injury Pension.
When this writer retired in 2001, the war-disabled were neither recognized as a distinct category, nor did any details relating to them existed. Consequently, they tended to be generally forgotten and were usually left out of consideration when concessions/grants or awards were made. Even during military and non-military functions, while the war widows and gallantry award winners are provided places of honour, no such arrangements were/are made for the ‘war disabled’; sadly they are not even invited. I decided to change this by setting up the War Wounded Foundation (WWF), as an NGO, with the aim of empowering the war-disabled; their long-term rehabilitation; and improving their financial status by providing opportunities and skills to supplement their war injury pension.
WWF does not get any funds from the government, but depends on voluntary donations for its work. This is in stark contrast to what happens in say USA, where the Veterans Affairs (VA) Department is not only a full-fledged constitutional organization, but is funded by the government and has a huge component dealing with the war disabled. In 2012, their Wounded Warrior Project had spent US $114,817,090 on programmes in support of wounded veterans. All Presidents of USA honour war-disabled personnel at the White House formally every year.
Reverting to our country, despite our efforts, no real headway was made by the Department of Ex Servicemen Welfare (DESW) to improve the lot of the ‘war disabled’ and bring them, as a group, to the attention of the nation. DESW has actually squandered government funds by paying huge amounts to lawyers to fight the rulings of the Armed Forces Tribunals (AFT’s) and High Courts in the Supreme Court (SC), to deny legitimate dues to the war-disabled. The reported figure for the last financial year was over Rs 46 Crores. Despite losing all cases, it is carrying on with this wasteful activity. The setting up of the Directorate of Indian Army Veterans (DIAV) has given a big push to the war disabled personnel. We now have a data base of war-disabled personnel but its updating is still a problem.
Year of the War Disabled
During the War Disabled Personnel Rally at Pune on May 6, 2017, organised by WWF, I had made an appeal to the Chief Guest – the COAS – to declare 2018 as the ‘Year of the War Disabled’ and he had graciously accepted it. He has followed it up by declaring 2018-19 as the ‘Year of the War Disabled’, but in my view it was diluted by giving it the title ‘Year of the Disabled Soldier in the Line of Duty’. Does the phrase ‘War Disabled’ not cover ‘in the line of duty’? Notwithstanding this bureaucratize, we are grateful, as it will bring focus to this important category of Veterans.
Importance of War Disabled Personnel
War-disabled personnel deserve to be treated at par or nearly at par with those who lay down their lives for the nation in battle. There are convincing reasons for this. Those who sacrifice their lives in war – the martyrs – must be and are treated with great respect and their next of kin adequately compensated both monetarily and in terms of maximum assistance to their widows and children. This is essential, but the ‘war disabled’ find themselves completely left out from such considerations.
The disabled personnel who have lost their limbs or other vital organs may be alive, but as earning heads of a household they are akin to the soldiers who have died on the battlefield. In addition, the disabled person not only has to cope with the trauma and adverse psychological impact of losing parts of his body, but his physical capacity to earn is permanently impaired. Yet, financial compensation for them is meager indeed and their NOK do not get any other facility, like a house, or a job for a member of their family or even enhanced family pension after the demise of the ‘war disabled person’.
Soldiers sacrifice their lives and limbs for many reasons, like national pride, pride in the regiment and unit, high level of motivation, courage and above all the understanding that the nation will look after their next of kin (NOK), if they meet their death on the battlefield or get disabled. It also needs to be highlighted that those personnel who get disabled in action have the added responsibility of not only looking after themselves for the rest of their lives, but also their wives, children and other NOK. Most ‘war disabled’ personnel are young when they get disabled; therefore they have a long life ahead, for which they need all the support that a grateful nation can give.
After the Kargil War, financial compensation for the NOK of the martyrs was increased substantially, but the disabled continue to receive a pittance. In addition, soldiers who are retained in service or those who were disabled in wars fought before the Kargil War are given nothing. This differentiation is purely a meaningless bureaucratic formulation, but the damage it has done to the psyche of the war-disabled is colossal. If this situation gets perpetuated on account of the apathy of the government, it will have a highly adverse effect on future intakes and on the morale of the rank and file.
All discriminate policies relating to the emoluments of the war-disabled personnel emanate from a policy letter issued on 31 January 2001, for implementing the decisions of the 5th Central Pay Commission. This appears to have become the ‘bible’ of the bureaucrats, for despite a number of Supreme Court rulings; passage of time; emphatic orders of many Defence Ministers; and changes by Pay Commissions; the bureaucrats of MoD are loath to scrap/replace the policy. Reasons are partly attitudinal, but mainly fall in the corrupt actions category, as more appeals means more lawyers’ fees and more ‘cuts’!
Two major aspects of this policy letter need to be highlighted. Firstly, the policy creates groups/categories within the war-disabled. Secondly, denying broad banding of percentages of disability to such arbitrarily made groups. Although the SC has ruled many times that there cannot be segregation by categories, the policy lays down different standards for each group. Uncaring of clear court rulings, DESW continues to demand individual court orders in all cases despite the favourable rulings of the courts to similarly placed personnel. Not surprisingly, a commonly heard refrain within the defence fraternity is that “DESW does everything except welfare of retired defence personnel, particularly in respect of disabled soldiers.”
Let me briefly state my example. I had lost my leg in the 1965 India-Pakistan War when I was a Capt but had continued to serve and retired with a 70 percent disability, as the VCOAS. On broad-banding being denied, I filed a petition in AFT Chandigarh in 2010. The AFT allowed broad-banding benefits to all disabled personnel, not just me. In March 2011, the Supreme Court in a similar case ruled that broad-banding benefits were to be provided to all disabled personnel and not just those who were invalided out. In February 2012, DESW appealed against the AFT’s judgment, thus again bringing into focus the deep scorn of the DESW towards disabled Veterans. SC refused to grant a stay on the AFT’s decision, but DESW persisted and filed an SLP. The case continued for two years as the DESW lawyers kept asking for postponements on flimsy grounds.
Simultaneously, many other disabled personnel had also filed similar petitions. Finally, in December 2014, the Supreme Court dismissed all appeals by DESW and ruled in favour of the petitioners. This should have made the DESW hang its collective head in shame and replace the policy letter of 2001, but DESW continues to be mulish and poor Jawans and others have to first go to a court before getting their legitimate dues. Should DESW not be disbanded?
‘Change of attitude’ is sorely needed. MoD’s insistence in continuing with different categories fails to appreciate that problems of all categories are the same. Result is that those retained in service are denied many benefits. This differentiation is purely a meaningless bureaucratic formulation, as it has hurt the very psyche of the war-disabled who are today a disillusioned group. An attitudinal change therefore, is the first step, so that there is no discrimination between those continuing in service and those who go home.
Change of attitude is also needed by all citizens of the country. The initiative for this must come from the military and the government and within the military from the army, as nearly all ‘war disabled’ are from the army. The declaration of the COAS stipulating 2018-19 as the “Year of the War Disabled”, signifies the positive intentions of the army and can be a catalyst for commencing the process of attitudinal change.
The next action needed is to treat war-disabled personnel at par or nearly at par with those who lay down their lives in battle. This has been adequately analysed earlier. Ex-gratia grant to the war-disabled must be enhanced. At present, it is only Rs 1 lakh for those ‘invalided out’ and nothing for those retained in service. A substantial increase is a must. Those continuing in service must also be brought in the ambit of such grants.
Data-banks must be dynamic in that they need to be continuously updated. Due to lack of details, no planning and dialogue can be established with the war-disabled. New cases of war-disability must be added to the existing data, as casualties continue to occur in CI and other operations. This needs coordination between lower formations and units; regimental centres; and the medical establishments.
The existing NGOs exclusively dealing with the war-disabled should be fully taken on board by the government and service headquarters. They need encouragement, instead of being viewed as interfering irritants or competitors, as it will result in quick two-way passage of information. After considerable effort, a dialogue has now been established with the army, but DESW continues in its erratic and obstinate ways!
‘Visibility’ is important for keeping the war-disabled in the limelight. This should be continuous and innovative, so that their problems are fully highlighted. This is best done by first accepting them as an important category to be honoured and then publicizing their problems and achievements.
War Disabled soldiers at the Mumbai Marathon
With ‘visibility in mind, WWF has been fielding a team of ‘war disabled personnel’ in the Mumbai Marathon since last seven years, as it results in major public exposure to the war disabled. Our Vice President, Maj Gen Ian Cardozo (age 88) and myself (age 77) participate with our disabled JCOs and Jawans. More value can be added if teams from some formations, not necessarily of war disabled personnel exclusively, also participate to show camaraderie and solidarity. Similar participation can also be carried out in other cities, where marathons are run. The aim is four-fold, viz. visibility; self-confidence; overcoming disabilities; and pride in the uniform.
Meetings of all stake holders should be organized at regular intervals and at different locations to understand and ameliorate the problems of the war disabled. Secretary DESW should also be co-opted; maybe their hostile attitude will change! At present, medical boards award percentages of disability only when a war disabled person is leaving the service. Hence, those war-disabled who opt to soldier on get nothing for their disability till their retirement. There are allowances for changes in service norms; service in hard, remote and high altitude areas; city compensatory allowance; technical allowance and so on.
Even gallantry awardees get allowances; but there is nothing for losing a leg or an arm or an organ in the service of the nation. Why? Disabled personnel spend extra on mobility equipment, transportation, diseases on account of lack of exercise/movement, limb/organ/wounds maintenance and so on. They must also be compensated. This is a fundamental issue and is logical and correct, but it will be opposed tooth and nail by the bureaucracy. This needs to be taken up immediately.
Over the last few decades, the ‘war disabled’ as a group have been gradually fading away from the radar screens of the service headquarters as well as the MoD. This is despite the fact that the number of war disabled keeps increasing practically on a daily basis on account of the casualties being incurred in counter insurgency/terrorist operations.
The plight of the ‘war disabled’ soldiers, especially in our rural areas from where most of them hail, needs to be appreciated and actions need to be taken to ameliorate their multifarious problems. The ‘war disabled’ need to be treated akin to currently established groups like the war widows and the gallantry award winners.
The author was commissioned in the Maratha LI and is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff. He lost his right leg in 1965 war, but continued serving and held appointments like the DGMO and GOC of a Strike Corps. He was the Army Commander of two commands – the Training Command as well as the Western Command. Earlier, he had held a diplomatic assignment at Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). He was also an International Fellow at the US Army War College. A recipient of all three Distinguished Service awards, Gen Oberoi is now engaged in intellectual pursuits and social work.
He can be reached on Email: email@example.com