The Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement (IESM), an advocacy group for veterans, has written to the defense ministry protesting the re-employment of an official they perceive to have a history of being inimical to their interests.
The letter written to the Secretary, Ex-Servicemen Welfare (ESW), Prabhu Dayal Meena, says that, “The Indian Ex-servicemen Movement (IESM) is very concerned to learn about the reported move to re-employ Shri Harbans Singh, former JS (Pension) once again in Dept of Ex-servicemen Welfare.”
Calling it a ‘retrogressive step, the Chairman of the IESM, Major General Satbir Singh, SM, (retired), said in the letter that, “The perception of the entire Veteran Community is that Shri Harbans Singh during his long tenure in Pension Branch managed to vitiate the atmosphere between MoD and the veterans with his pronounced bias against them. Viewing veterans as a greedy and pampered lot, he has a sadistic bent of mind and believes in doing as little good as possible and as late as possible while framing pension policies.”
The note to Meena says that the Harbans Singh has ‘used his knowledge against the interests of veterans, included the war disabled and war widows’ and is ‘single-handedly responsible for proliferating litigation including by fixing arbitrary cut off dates for new benefits, creating categories within categories, not implementing pension policies decided by Dept of Pension & PW and applicable to all government pensioners, denying thereby the resultant benefit to ex-servicemen; framing policies against the letter and spirit of Defence Pension Regulations and deciding policies in violation of Article 14 of the Constitution and laws of natural justice.’
The letter also alleges that Harbans Singh is responsible for ‘restricting benefit of court orders to petitioners only, thereby compelling others similarly placed to file fresh cases, not executing AFT orders until compelled through Contempt Petitions, and referring all judgments instead to Ministry of Law for appeals in the SC, as a default response. (In January 2014, he even issued detailed instructions to streamline and fast-track appeals against orders of tribunals and courts, as an auto-response; later rescinded when it caused an uproar among the veterans), seeking reviews of well-considered and well-argued judgments by the Supreme Court in favor of disabled war veterans and continuing to file fresh appeals even when similar cases already settled by SC in favor of petitioners’.
The letter specifically mentions a recent decision of the Supreme Court, dismissing a case which Harbans Singh is alleged to have pushed. The letter says, “In the recent appeal on broad-banding case dismissed by SC, the note leading to the decision to file the appeal (despite Army HQ’s advice to the contrary in this case) was prepared by Shri Singh. He managed to mislead his seniors as also the then RM by misrepresenting facts, putting up a biased and one-sided note and convinced them to file an appeal.”
The decision relates to more than 800 multiple appeals filed by the Ministry of Defense against disability benefits of disabled soldiers.
The Fifth Pay Commission had introduced the concept of broad-banding to minimize medical subjectivity and rationalize mistakes of medical boards by providing that those with a disability below 50% would be granted a disability element by treating it as 50%, those with 50%-75% would be granted the benefit of 75% and above 76% would be considered as 100%.
However while implementing the concept, the defense ministry granted it only to post-1996 personnel invalided out on medical grounds and not to pre-1996 or those who were released with disability pension on superannuation or completion of terms, though all categories were equally afflicted with the problem of medical subjectivity. Military pension rules however provided that defence personnel released in a low medical category were deemed to be invalided out of service for purposes of disability pension.
There was a series of litigation thereafter wherein various benches of the Armed Forces Tribunal, High Courts and then the Supreme Court in a detailed decision held that pre-96 disabled personnel and those released on completion of terms or superannuation could not be deprived of broad-banding. One of the lead cases therein was that of Former Army Vice Chief Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi, war disabled in the 1965 Indo-Pak War.
Despite a decision of the then Chief of the Army Staff Gen VK Singh in 2011 refusing to file appeals against judgements in favor to disabled soldiers, the defense ministry insisted on filing appeals in all matters stating that the decisions were against ‘government policy’ and instructed Govt lawyers to file appeals in thousands of such cases in the SC. Some of these cases involved an enhanced sum of just Rs 310/- per month as disability benefits.
Finally, the letter recommends the a request to the ‘Dept of Pension & PW to spare a couple of experienced officers to revamp your Pension Branch’ as well as ‘a few competent officers from defence services on deputation’.
This is not the first time veterans have protested the appointment of Harbans Singh.
In September 2013, the IESM had protested his appointment on the basis of his history of perceived antipathy to veterans’ interests, especially since the defense ministry proposed to re-employ him after retirement as a consultant with a salary paid from the Armed Forces Flag Day Fund, which is meant specifically for the welfare of veterans and their families.