The underlying theme of the One-Rank-One-Pension (OROP) debate is one of a nation needing to do right by its war veterans. The veterans, the argument goes, put their lives at risk to defend the motherland, so surely a grateful nation can ensure they have a decent living? How demeaning it is, the argument goes, that a colonel who retired in 1980 should be getting a pension lower than his son who retired in 2010.
Emotional arguments, however, only obfuscate the issue. A pension is really nothing but a deferred payment of wages, to help those that served—in the army, in schools, in hospitals, wherever—maintain a certain standard of living after retirement. To that extent, it has to be related to the salaries paid during a person’s working life. So, to use the logic of those in favour of OROP, if the country wanted to reward a soldier more, his salary should have been much higher than it was at the time he was serving, there’s no point hiking it post-retirement. In any case, OROP was never a term of service.
And it is not as if the nation is not doing right by its soldiers after they retire, or by its bureaucrats, for that matter. The colonel-father getting a pension lower than his colonel-son conveys the impression that veterans are living in penury, but that is not true for either them or the millions of civilians the government has on its payrolls.
Some examples are worth keeping in mind. In the case of the army, 12 years ago, a colleague’s mother got a monthly family pension of R8,000—her father retired as Lieutenant Colonel—but this is now R40,000. On the civilian side, an additional secretary who retired 5 years ago got R57,000 as pension then, but gets R75,000 today. A joint secretary who retired in 2004 got R35,000 as pension then, and this has gone up to R60,000 today. In the case of a secretary who retired in 1993, the pension has gone up from R4,000 then to R102,000 now! Whether for army officers or for bureaucrats, pensions have been galloping and the biggest beneficiaries are those whom have been retired for a longer period of time. Do the same exercise for anyone not employed by the government, whether a humble peon or the chairman of Hindustan Lever, or those who save 24% of their salary in the EPFO—there are 6 crore such people today—and you will find there is no such equivalence, anywhere.
The reason for this is the way the government calculates its wages, and therefore salaries. So, let’s say a person—this applies to joint secretaries, teachers, havildars, colonels, everyone employed by government—retired in 1995 with a basic salary of R10,000 and a pension of R5,000 based on the principle of pension equalling half of the last pay. In the case of all non-government employees, this amount would be worth nothing today given inflation in the last 20 years. In the case of government employees, however, the salary/pension is indexed to inflation. So, between 1995 and today, the basic salary—and therefore pension—will be increased every year to take into account inflation.
And every 10 years, a Pay Commission comes and takes care of the rest. Let’s go back to our government employee and assume he was in the middle of a scale running from R8,000 to R12,000. Between 1995 and 2005, while the basic would have remained unchanged, the actual salary would keep rising since the inflation-indexed dearness allowance (DA) keeps rising. Now assume the last Pay Commission raised this pay scale to R18,000 to R24,000. Immediately, the salary of those at the top end of the pay scale would have risen to R24,000, with the DA reduced to zero. And then, from 2006 onwards, the DA would have started rising again each year till 2015, when the new Pay Commission comes in.
What happens to pensions? This is where OROP comes in since, once this is accepted for the armed forces, there will be demands to extend this elsewhere also. For people who retired in 2005, the basic salary is reckoned at R24,000 in our example, as a result of which the pension will be R12,000—with, needless to say, a built-in DA hike twice a year. Our friend who was in the R10,000 basic salary bracket finds his salary getting hiked to R18,000—the lowest of the new pay scale—as a result of which the pension rises to R9,000, with the DA clock set back at zero for the first year. In the sense of people of the same rank getting different pensions, it looks unfair, but does anyone who worked in 1995 get the same salary as someone in 2015, or get to buy gold at the same price, or property? And, with the next Pay Commission ready to submit its report by October—it is to be implemented with effect from next April—our friend who retired in 1995 will get another hefty pension bump.
Which is why defence pensions have jumped from R11,250 crore in FY05 to R21,790 crore in FY10 and R54,500 crore in FY16; for the government as a whole, it is up from R26,250 crore in FY05 to R60,489 crore in FY10 to R127,507 crore in FY15. To put this in perspective, India’s GDP rose from R29,71,464 crore in FY05 to R61,08,903 crore in FY10 and to R1,25,41,208 crore in FY15—so as a share of GDP, India’s pension bill rose from 0.88% to 0.92% in a decade. As a proportion of total government expenditure, it rose from 5.3% in FY05 to 7.1% in FY15.
Another way to look at this is what each pension costs. A retired secretary to the government of India today gets a pension of R85,200. LIC charges R1 lakh today from a 60-year old to give a monthly pension of R745—which means a monthly pension of R85,200 is equivalent to a lump-sum payment of R1.14 crore! If the next Pay Commission bumps the pension up to R100,000, say, the lump-sum payment goes up to R1.34 crore. If the government was to fork out a single bullet payment for its total pension bill of R127,507 crore, it would have to pay R171 lakh crore, or 1.2 times FY16 GDP! Imagine how much this will go up by after the next Pay Commission.
It is precisely because of this unsustainable Greece-style pension crisis that, in 2004, the government decided those joining the civil services would contribute a fixed amount of their salary to the National Pension Scheme (NPS) with a matching contribution from the government, and whatever money that earns would be the person’s pension; naturally, this doesn’t grow anywhere as spectacularly as that of anyone employed by the government currently.
This should have been done for the armed forces as well, but didn’t, presumably because the government felt it could bear the burden. No matter what the grievances of the armed forces vis-a-vis the civilians who retire later than they do and therefore get a higher pension, at some point, the government will have to consider moving to NPS for the armed forces since the burden is sky-rocketing and OROP will raise it dramatically. All pensions are a function, as we know, of salaries. So, if a colonel has been in that post for 2 years, he will get a salary—and therefore a pension—that will be different from a colonel who has been in the post for 6 months. Under OROP, the pensions of all colonels will equal those of the colonel who has spent the maximum number of years in the post! If this is now demanded by teachers, babus, paramilitary forces and the police, Greece is just a step away.