OPIN­ION

Many of­fi­cers suf­fer­ing from men­tal and phys­i­cal ail­ments con­tinue to be de­nied dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits

DNA (Delhi) - - FRONT PAGE - BY IN­VI­TA­TION MA­JOR NAVDEEP SINGH

Many of­fi­cers suf­fer­ing from men­tal and phys­i­cal ail­ments con­tinue to be de­nied dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits, writes Ma­jor Navdeep Singh

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 few 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 con­sid­er­ably higher stress and strain of ser­vice, which af­fects health in a detri­men­tal man­ner, a fact that is uni­ver­sally recog­nised 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 cases of death, and the ap­pli­ca­ble rules pro­vide a pre­sump­tion of ‘ser­vice­con­nec­tion’ 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’. This is not only against ground re­al­i­ties, but also against rules and de­ci­sions of Con­sti­tu­tional Courts. Though the courts, gov­ern­ment’s le­gal ad­vi­sors, com­mit­tees set up by the de­fence min­istry, and the mil­i­tary med­i­cal au­thor­i­ties, have time and again or­dained sen­si­tiv­ity to­wards such dis­abil­i­ties — there have been cases of 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 the 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.

To elicit a neg­a­tive re­sponse, the fi­nan­cial en­ti­ties of the De­fence Min­istry 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.

File ini­tia­tors have hid­den from the hi­er­ar­chy that this thought process mil­i­tates against 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 also 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 their ser­vice away from fam­ily and lead reg­i­mented lives under strict mil­i­tary law, of­ten in bar­racks and pre­dom­i­nantly away from so­ci­ety. There is a feel­ing of acute in­abil­ity of ful­fill­ing do­mes­tic and fa­mil­ial com­mit­ments. Free­dom is 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.

There are also is­sues re­gard­ing the do­mes­tic front. For in­stance, what does one do when there is a prop­erty dis­pute or any other ad­min­is­tra­tive re­quire­ment? Fol­low­ing it up with the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and courts is largely im­prac­ti­cal for men and women of the Forces since they mostly re­main away from home. Such fac­tors give rise to a feel­ing of help­less­ness, lead­ing to stress and strain, and thereby ag­gra­vat­ing men­tal and phys­i­cal con­di­tions of sol­diers. This is the rea­son which prompted the Supreme Court to once re­mark that a sol­dier re­mains torn be­tween the call of duty and fam­ily com­mit­ments.

Apart from sol­diers, a tirade was re­cently un­leashed against se­nior of­fi­cers of the mil­i­tary, ask­ing why high rank­ing of­fi­cers should also have been granted dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits. But why not? If a gen­eral is suf­fer­ing from a dis­abil­ity, known to be ag­gra­vated by the 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 re­cent times, suf­fer­ing car­diac ar­rests and un­der­go­ing heart surg­eries and other health pro­ce­dures due to ex­treme stress. In fact, some peo­ple have also spo­ken of cases of se­nior of­fi­cers hid­ing their dis­abil­i­ties in or­der to re­main el­i­gi­ble for pro­mo­tion.

Such state­ments will once again cause naysay­ers to re­it­er­ate their call for de­nial of dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits. How­ever, even if these state­ments are in­deed true, it is purely an ad­min­is­tra­tive in­frac­tion for which the rem­edy lies else­where and this has no con­nec­tion with dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits that 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 har­monise and ra­tio­nalise its pro­mo­tional poli­cies, to make them prac­ti­cal and bring them in line with mod­ern times so that peo­ple do not hide their med­i­cal sta­tus.

With a sen­si­tive and sen­si­tised de­fence min­is­ter, one hopes that the law as or­dained by Courts, rec­om­men­da­tions of ex­perts, and the word of the po­lit­i­cal ex­ec­u­tive pre­vail ul­ti­mately; not file not­ings of penny-count­ing ac­coun­tants who bring avoid­able dis­tress to the mil­i­tary com­mu­nity. The fo­cus also should shift to im­prov­ing the health pro­file of the mil­i­tary in the wake of heav­ily stress­ful con­di­tions, and not sav­ing money through a ham-handed ap­proach.

The writer is a prac­tic­ing lawyer at the Pun­jab & Haryana High Court and is also the au­thor of the book ‘Maimed by the Sys­tem’. Views are per­sonal.

There have been re­ports of se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cers hid­ing their dis­abil­i­ties in or­der to re­main el­i­gi­ble for pro­mo­tion.

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