On Monday, the Supreme Court criticised the Union government for delaying payments to about 1.6 million army pensioners under the one rank, one pension (OROP) scheme. The court said that the armed forces should not break the law.
“You’re not fighting an enemy here. You are trying to destroy the rule of law. “You can’t do this… the sanctity of the judicial process must be kept,” said a bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud. The bench asked the secretary in the defence ministry to explain what was going on.
A government spokesperson said that after the top court’s comments, the defence ministry told the Controller General of Defence Accounts (CGDA) on Monday to pay all OROP arrears in one lump sum. He also said that ex-servicemen will get all of their back pay by March 15.
The bench, which also included justices PS Narasimha and JB Pardiwala, strongly disagreed with a letter from an officer in the ministry’s concerned department asking for an extension of the deadline set by the court in January. On January 9, the bench told the government that nearly 2.5 million ex-pension servicemen’s arrears had to be paid by March 15.
This was the third extension given to the Centre after the highest court upheld the OROP scheme in March 2022. Under this scheme, military members who retire at the same rank and with the same number of years of service get the same pension, no matter when they retire. The first extension was for three months and it was given in June 2022. The second extension was also for three months and it was given in September.
But on January 20, the ministry sent out a message saying that the money could be given out in four parts to people who had won a gallantry award or were getting a family pension.
During the hearing on Monday, senior lawyer Huzefa Ahmadi and lawyer Balaji Srinivasan said that the communication tries to change a court order by deciding on its own to extend the deadline set by the court in its January 9 order.
“Since the petition was started, almost 400,000 pensioners have died without getting their money. The payments were supposed to be made in 2019, but it is now 2023. And this officer has a lot of guts to send this message. He gave himself the power to change what this court had decided. “This is very telling,” Ahmadi said on behalf of a group of ex-servicemen.
On the other hand, the Centre, which was represented by additional solicitor general N Venkataraman, said that 2,500 crore had been paid to 8 lakh army pensioners. “I’ve been told that family pensioners and people who won awards for bravery will also be paid by March 31. Some problems came up because of the way the benefits were calculated,” Venkataraman said.
But the court was angry about the letter from January 20 and asked Venkatraman how such a letter could be sent after the January 9 court order. “Since March 2022, we’ve been adding time. Tell the secretary that we will take action against him on January 20 because of this letter. Either he takes back what he said on January 20, or we will send him a notice of contempt. “There is no way to defend such a message,” it said.
The bench then wrote in its order that the letter from January 20 asking to delay payments to ex-servicemen in four half-yearly installments goes against the top court’s order, which set the deadline for March 15.
In the court order, it said, “We direct the concerned secretary in MoD to file a personal affidavit explaining why this unilateral decision was made despite the order of this court.” The next hearing is set for the third week of March.
It also said that if there was any more delay in giving out the money, the court would have to think about giving the ex-servicemen 9% interest on the late payments.
By its decision in March 2022, the top court upheld the Centre’s notice on OROP from November 7, 2015. The plan had to be put into place by July 2014 and was supposed to be changed every five years.
In December, the Union cabinet led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved a change to the pensions of ex-servicemen and family pensioners under the OROP scheme. The change will take effect on July 1, 2019, and arrears will be paid from July 2019 to June 2022.
Anurag Thakur, the minister of information and broadcasting, told reporters on December 23 that the move would help more than 2.5 million defence pensioners, who would be paid 23,638 crore in back pay.
Veterans were supposed to get their back pay in four half-yearly payments, but those who get a family pension or a gallantry award will only get one payment, HT reported on December 24.
Lieutenant General DB Shekatkar (ret.) said it would be best for the defence ministry to follow the Supreme Court’s order and pay the OROP arrears to all defence pensioners at once.
“If the ministry couldn’t pay the back taxes, it should have gone back to court, explained why it couldn’t, and asked for more time. “If you don’t say anything about the SC’s orders, it sends the wrong message to the average person that even the top court’s orders can be ignored,” Shekatkar said.