Modi and OROP
There were some new buzzwords, a reiteration of some tired old ones, but little beyond that. Absent was the energy and expectations that marked his 2014 Independence Day address. But the most important failing was a measure of introspection of his term as the country's CEO in the past year, or the state of play of his key projects to make India into a major economic and industrial hub.
A measure of the failure was the manner in which the occasion was derailed by the One Rank One Pension (OROP) issue. Governments, both the UPA and the NDA, have mishandled it to a point where we today have the military stepping dangerously close to the political ground, albeit through the ranks of its ex-service personnel. This is not a healthy development and we must reflect on this.
The real grouse
The retired service personnel have had a grouse which has been accentuated by the manner in which the other sections of the central government employees have been dealt with. Jawans retire at the age of 48 and officers from 54 onwards. Civil servants retire at the age of 60 and 62.
Over the years civil servants have expanded their power and pelf through direct and indirect means. An uncomfortably large number of central government employees make money through bribes and favours, and those who are relatively honest manage to use the network of regulatory and supervisory bodies that virtually guarantees a job for all senior retired government officers needing one. The military, by and large, is clean on this count and the soldier depends on his pension like no other in the government.
OROP can have dangerous fiscal implications, even though the claimed outgo at this juncture is Rs 8,000 crore. But it can only be resolved through a larger reform which equalises the remuneration of central government employees and deals with the cancer of corruption in the system. One way, suggested by the Fifth Pay Commission was to reduce the size of the government by 30 per cent. Another good suggestion was to have jawans serve for seven years and, thereafter, move them to the paramilitary forces where retirement age is between 57 to 60 years. Since the paramilitary serve till 58 to 60 years, the pension bill would come down and the paramilitary would have a set of well-trained recruits. But babus and politicians blocked these proposals.
The only rational way in which OROP can be implemented is if it is part of a wider reform of the central government employee system. We need not detain ourselves with the relative merits of the "brave veterans" versus "civilians". These are emotive terms, the fact is that India has a volunteer military and no one joins because they are especially dedicated nationalists or brave, but because it is like other central government jobs and provides good employment and social mobility.
The speech this year must also be looked at through the filter of performance. To be polite, this has been mixed. Instead of reform, we have a minister trying to undermine the IITs and place the RSS functionaries in several prestigious educational institutes; and others trying to stifle dissent. Modi may have declared that he will not tolerate casteism and communalism, but the facts on the ground are that communal violence has shown a dangerous uptick under his prime ministership.
The Modi government has picked up some of the low-hanging fruit - the scheme to give most Indians a bank account, the insurance schemes, the surrender of gas subsidies and the construction of toilets in most Indian schools - but not as completely as they would have us believe.
Skill development and Make in India were the more important themes of his 2014 speech. And one of the more heartening sub-themes was the need to protect women and give their girl child her due. These have been largely marked by their absence this year.
But we do have new buzzwords - "Team India", "Start-up India", and "Vikas ka pyramid". As for corruption, no charges may have surfaced at the top, but at all other levels it is business as usual and there is little that the Modi government is doing anything about it.
It is difficult to avoid the impression that the Modi government has lost its mojo. The main reason for this is that instead of overhauling a machine that had gone bust, it remains committed to using babus to keep that old machine going somehow or the other.
So, the government has adopted a fire-fighting approach to douse the fires as they come up. The ex-servicemen have learnt this and have, therefore, taken to the streets to air their grievance. more