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