The financial entities of the MoD have instilled a feeling that such disabilities can occur in civilians too and hence uniformed personnel do not require any special dispensation. What is glossed over is the fact that there are many unique stressors in the military and hence any parallel sought to be drawn with civil employees on this subject is inherently flawed.
by Maj Navdeep Singh (Retd)
Earlier this year, in a tragic coincidence, four officers of the Indian Army passed away on account of cardiac arrests, in different parts of India, on the same day. Between that day and today, many more non-operational disease-related deaths have been reported, and the same have been spiralling upwards since the past many years.
The military is always perceived to be fitter, stronger and healthier than the civil populace. But this, sadly, is a myth. When compared to civilian government employees, members of the military and other uniformed forces face a considerably higher stress and strain of service which affects health in a detrimental manner, a fact which is universally recognized by all major militaries. Incurring a disability while in service entitles soldiers to disability benefits on retirement and higher death benefits to the family in case of death, and the applicable rules provide a presumption of ‘service-connection’ of disabilities which are acquired during service.
However, in order to avoid such payouts, the system has been wrongly branding such disabilities as “neither attributable to, nor aggravated by military service” which is not only against ground realities, but also against rules and decisions of Constitutional Courts. Though the courts, the highest of political executive, government’s legal advisors, committees set up by the MoD and also the military medical authorities have time and again ordained sensitivity towards such disabilities, liberal grant of Disability Pensions and also withdrawal of appeals filed by the Ministry against disability benefits of its own disabled soldiers in the Supreme Court, it is highly unfortunate that the hands of senior political leadership and higher bureaucracy have been restrained by misleading and mischievous file notings initiated by lower bureaucracy to deny such benefits to soldiers and projecting them as somewhat greedy.
To take an example, to elicit a negative response from the top, the financial entities of the MoD have instilled a feeling that such disabilities can occur in civilians too and hence uniformed personnel do not require any special dispensation – a thoroughly erroneous supposition. Firstly, file initiators have hidden from the hierarchy that this thought-process militates against the basic entitlement rules which list even conditions such as heart disease, hypertension and neurosis as diseases affected by stress and strain of service.
Moreover, what is glossed over is the fact that there are many unique stressors in the military and hence any parallel sought to be drawn with civil employees on this subject is inherently flawed. For example, soldiers and officers of uniformed services spend most of service away from family and lead regimented lives under strict military law, often in barracks and predominantly away from society. There is also an acute inability of fulfilling domestic and familial commitments. Freedoms are curtailed which may seem innocuous to the untrained eye but it takes a toll on a person’s health.
Illustratively, even when posted in a ‘peace’ area, to undertake regular activities such as visiting the market a soldier needs to seek permission, sign multiple forms and be back in time for the roll call. A soldier is not available to provide or receive emotional support when required, even sexual needs remain unfulfilled. Again some seemingly benign examples – what does a person do when one’s child gets hurt? Kiss and hug the child, hold the child close, a luxury not obtainable by members of the uniformed forces. What does one do when there is a property dispute or any other administrative requirement? Follow it up with the local authorities and courts, something impracticable for men and women of the forces since they mostly remain away from home. The list is endless.
All such factors give rise to a feeling of helplessness leading to stress and strain thereby aggravating the mental and physical conditions of soldiers and this also is the reason which prompted the Supreme Court to once remark that a soldier remains torn between the call of duty and family commitments. It is however lamentable that financial entities of the MoD are able to tide over rules, binding judicial dicta and also political will and are able to elicit incorrect reactions from decision-makers. Apart from soldiers, a tirade was unleashed against senior officers of the military stating that high ranking officers have also been granted disability benefits.
But why not? If a General is suffering from a disability known to be aggravated by stress and strain of service, why should she or he be denied because of rank? Some senior officers are at an even higher risk because of an elevated age bracket and greater responsibility. There have been multiple examples of Generals in the recent times suffering cardiac arrests and undergoing heart and other procedures due to extreme stress.
Can such live examples be brushed aside? People also speak of cases of senior officers hiding their disabilities in order to remain eligible for promotions. If true, then it is purely an administrative infraction for which remedy lies elsewhere and this has no connection with disability benefits which are purely linked with a person’s physical condition at the time of joining service vis-a-vis retirement.
Moreover, it also means that the system needs to plug the holes in the annual medical examinations and at the same time harmonize and rationalize its promotional policies, make them practical and bring them in line with modern times so that people do not hide their medical status.
With a sensitive and sensitized Defence Minister, one hopes that the law as ordained by courts, recommendations of experts and the word of the political executive prevail ultimately, and not sadistic file notings of penny-counting accountants who bring a bad name to the establishment and avoidable distress to the military community. The focus also should shift to improving the health profile of the military in wake of heavily stressful conditions, and not saving money through a ham-handed approach.
Major Navdeep Singh is a practicing Advocate in the Punjab & Haryana High Court. He was the founding President of the Armed Forces Tribunal Bar Association. He is a Member of the International Society for Military Law and the Law of War at Brussels. He was also a Member of a Committee of Experts constituted by the Defence Minister on directions of the Prime Minister to reduce litigation initiated by the Ministry of Defence. This article first appeared in the DNA newspaper, reproduced with due permission of the author.
He can be reached at Email: firstname.lastname@example.org