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Army Backs Disability Pension Tax: Why ‘Mass Punishment’ Is Unwise

Army leadership has forgotten its own adage: ‘Never implement mass punishment for the sake of a few...’.

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
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With increasing frequency, issues related to the administrative aspects of the Indian Armed Forces seem to be regularly coming to the fore, due to the lack of understanding of the service conditions, and the challenges soldiers face during their careers.

Mostly these are perceived as the direct result of the awkward civil-military relationship which has existed since 1947, and the supposed ever-readiness of civil servants to divest the armed forces cadre of service privileges granted over time. However, this time, a strange case has arisen.

It relates to those armed forces personnel who superannuate at the end of their service contract with injuries sustained in war, internal service duties or accidents, which are attributable to service conditions.
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Included in this segment are those whose lifestyle ailments too are aggravated by such service conditions. All these personnel, as per procedure, appear before a duly constituted medical board which classifies their percentage of disability, which in turn entitles them to a disability pension, which along with the service element of the pension is not taxable.

It’s a privilege not reserved for the personnel of the armed forces alone, but for various other government servants retiring from Central Government Departments and regulated by the Central Civil Services (Pension) Rules, 1972; an example are the central armed police forces (CAPF).

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‘Favouring’ Civil Servants Over Armed Forces: A Strange Paradox

So what is the problem now? The Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) through a circular in end June 2019, decided to do away with the tax exemption for disabled soldiers.

There is a caveat however: this tax exemption doesn’t include those soldiers who get invalidated out of service due to attributable reasons, and did not complete their contracted service.

The impact of the decision is that all those who decided to continue in service till the age of retirement, even after being injured and placed in a low medical category, on exit will not be exempt from income tax. The tax exemption on disability pension is a privilege enjoyed by many government services, with not an iota of the type of physical threats faced by soldiers.

Yes, indeed, soldiers both on the field, and during peace conditions face stress and strain – due to the regimented life away from family, and always having to be available for duty 24x7, 365 days. Thus, by the implementation of the order, a strange thing will be prevalent in India and perhaps nowhere else in the world.

Disabled soldiers will be taxed for the pension they earn, and disabled civil servants will be exempted from tax – a strange paradox indeed.
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Why Did Army Back Disability Pension Tax Proposal?

When the CBDT circular was released, it created tremendous consternation among the veteran soldier community all over India, because it was perceived to be the outcome of yet another case of civil-military discord, which has been steadily increasing to the level of virtual animosity today.

One of the most respected disabled veterans of the armed forces, Major General Ian Cardozo (retd), speaking on a TV news panel, laid out the responsibility for the strange decision at the doorstep of the bureaucracy, which he strongly felt hated the armed forces.

However, as the week progressed and the armed forces were silent, it started to become evident that the decision was not a standalone one initiated by civil servants or anyone from the political leadership; it was the Army’s leadership which had quietly forwarded the proposal. It is not even known whether the other two services (Air Force and Navy) were on board, and whether detailed analysis and consideration had been looked at in terms of impact. The facts came to light after the Finance Minister’s office released an unsigned statement which included the reasons, and clearly alluded to the fact that the proposal had come from the Service Headquarters itself.

What Armed Forces Leadership Has Done Is Unbecoming

Why did the Army leadership decide to shoot its own personnel in the foot, that too for a privilege which not they alone but the entire central government services enjoy? This needs thorough analysis. It’s also important to point out that the government need not have acted with such alacrity on an issue which was bound to have a deep negative impact, that too on an element of society that is revered across most parts of India.

The same alacrity was not evident when the nonfunctional upgradation (NFU) proposal was forwarded to the government by the armed forces, nor were the observations and anomalies of the 7th and 6th Pay Commission treated such. 

In fact, a major part of the 6th Pay Commission anomalies are still languishing, with no apparent intent to rectify them. That is where the perception about bureaucratic antipathy comes from.

Procedurally what the armed forces leadership did was, in the perception of the veteran community, something unbecoming. Recommending the removal of a privilege, without an iota of consultation with those affected and no evidence of deep understanding and institutional study, is not something taken kindly in a profession where camaraderie and brotherhood, from womb to tomb, are considered pillars of organisational effectiveness.

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From The Army’s Perspective

One can perceive the problem from the Army’s point of view. The judiciary has been kind to the litigants from the armed forces and other organisations regarding individual cases of disability. Besides that, the broad banding of disability percentages has given the disabled personnel much greater financial advantage.

As a consequence, disability has become an ‘attractive’ aspect of government service, at least for those who have the intent of manipulating financial advantages for themselves.

It hardly matters to civil servants, who mostly serve in a sedentary environment, or at least nothing even close to the kind of challenging conditions in which Army personnel have to serve. However, the Army must have maximum physically fit personnel who have no restrictions on their employment. The challenge for the Army emerges when personnel in later stages of their service and especially after being overlooked for promotion, prefer to serve in a safe and stable environment in peace stations.

This can be done by seeking low medical category (LMC) status, or persistence in the category even after overcoming an originally genuine medical problem. It gives the chance also to seek disability status at the time of retirement. The above statement must not be taken as a generalisation, and is actually applicable to just a few who attempt to acquire such category and status for personal gain without moral considerations. The Army leadership is particular concerned about the number of LMC personnel because it reflects on ‘bayonet strength’, and therefore wishes to dissuade its personnel from seeking or remaining in LMC status leading to eventual disability, for the sake of overall efficiency.

A ‘Brash & Insensitive’ Move By Army Leadership

The unfortunate thing is that in its hurry to find solutions, the Army leadership has been brash and insensitive, and the government, instead of balancing that approach with the wisdom of 360-degree consideration, has added fuel to the fire. For the sake of a few culprits, an entire community of genuinely disabled soldiers, whether battle casualties, battle accidents or simply cases of aggravated lifestyle diseases, has been stigmatised. It’s an old adage of leadership in the Army: ‘never implement mass punishment for the sake of a few, because the blow back from it will always singe you’.

By implementing mass punishment, the Army’s leadership is only admitting its administrative incapability.

In an organisation which boasts of finding solutions to the most intractable challenges, surely, identifying a few culprits in an already well set out system of boards, reviews and approvals at different levels should not be a problem.

Nothing is lost, not even pride. Mistakes are made and also admitted. Ego must not stand in the way of rectifying them. With our sage and mature political leadership, and by all means, a bureaucracy which can be convinced of the ills of such a decision, the Army leadership must display its ability to rise above the ordinary, to be counted.

(The writer, a former GOC of the Army’s 15 Corps, is now the Chancellor of Kashmir University. He can be reached at @atahasnain53. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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