By Amit Cowshish
The three-day ‘delay’ in disbursement of pension to 58,759 defence pensioners for the month of April generated quite an outrage earlier this month. Interestingly, there were another 120,000 oddsimilarly pensioners who faced the same situation a month earlier when their pension for the month of March was not disbursed on time, but that did not attract as much attention.
Apparently, what triggered the outrage was the temptation of pinning the blame on the Defence Accounts Department (DAD) which had ‘migrated’ the former to an automated pension sanction-cum-disbursement programme called ‘System for Pension Administration Raksha’, or SPARSH. The problem the latter category of ‘legacy’ pensioners faced was perhaps not as newsworthy as they continue to be on the old system in which the Pension Disbursement Authorities (PDAs) -mostly bank branches- are responsible for calculating and crediting the monthly pension to the pensioners’ accounts.
Introduced in four phases between October 2020 and August 2021, roughly 5.13 lakh of the total 33 lakh odd defence pensioners have been ‘migrated’ to SPARSH. Of these, approximately 4.79 lakh are ‘legacy’ pensioners who had retired before SPARSH was implemented and have since then been brought under the new automated system;the 58,759 pensioners were among this group. The entire system, which will eventually cover all the defence pensioners, is centrally managed by the Principal Controller of Defence Accounts (Pensions), Prayagraj, or simply PCDA (P) which is one of the DAD’s many field offices.
These 58,759 pensioners -as indeed the other 120,000- did not receive their pension on the due date because they had either not submitted the ‘Life Certificate’, or if they had, it did not get linked with their pension account in the SPARSH database.
To put the problem in perspective, by mid-April PCDA (P) discovered that no intimation was available about submission of the ‘Life Certificate’ by about 3.3 lakh SPARSH pensioners. That’s when a massive exercise was undertaken to ascertain the status from the PDAs which resulted in the number being brought down to 58,759. At the last count, this number now stands at 36,730.
With time running out for arranging disbursement of pension for the month of April, it was decided to withhold the pension as required by the rules. However, after a quick high-level review, DAD decided to release the withheld pension, pending further efforts to obtain the ‘Life Certificate’. Unfortunately, with the weekend and Eid holiday intervening, restoration of withheld pension got ‘delayed’ by three days.
According to the pension rules, the ‘Life certificate’ is required to be submitted by every civil and military pensioner in the month of November every year. However, due to Covid-19,the government extended the deadline, first to December 2021 and then to February this year, despite which the problem of missing ‘Life Certificates’ arose.
The LifeCertificate is intended to make sure that pension does not continue to be automatically credited to the account of a pensioner who may have unfortunately expired during the preceding year, but whose demise was not reported by the next of kin for whatever reason. The rules require that pension of those whose certificate is not received by the PDA by the due date be stopped. It applies to all categories of pensioners, civil and military.
This then is the reality of what happened to the 58,759pensioners at the end of April, and the 120,000 odd pensioners at the end of March. And yet, some veterans seized the opportunity to pooh-pooh the massive exercise undertaken by the DAD to make the pension sanction and disbursement system for the 33 lakh existing pensioners and 85,000 odd who retire every year immensely efficient through digitisation. They can’t apparently see the wood for the trees.
The SPARSH system is designed to eliminate physical movement of pension documents from more than 2,000 offices across the country that are responsible for initiating the pension claim 18 months before an individual’s retirement to the Pension Sanctioning Authorities (PSAs) in Delhi, Mumbai and Prayag. It also eliminates the physical or even electronic movement of Pension Payment Orders (PPOs) from these PSAs to the PDAs -mainly bank branches- which too are spread all over the country. Under SPARSH, all these functions will be carried out online by the pension initiating offices and PCDA (P).
The naysayers have assailed SPARSH on four grounds. One, that an untested and unstable software has been foisted on the hapless pensioners, which is evident from the ‘glitch’ that resulted in pension of 58,759 pensioners being ‘delayed’. Two, that the system has been developed at an exorbitant price of Rs 160 crore and will ultimately lead to expansion of DAD’s ‘empire’. Three, most pensioners, especially those in the rural areas where internet connectivity is an issue, are not computer-savvy. They, it is averred, will find it difficult to use SPARSH and have no recourse to any grievances settlement agency. And four, that the system has no real advantage. None of this is true.
The ‘delay’ in disbursement of pension to 58,759 pensioners was not on account of any glitch; it had to be stopped as per the rules, though invoked belatedly in respect of these pensioners. DAD is no stranger to computerisation. It was one of the pioneers in taking to it, starting with the Hollerith machines in the 1960s and gradually expanding digital footprint through in-house efforts. Most of the computer systems designed by the department itself now form the bedrock of financial management in defence.
At any rate, SPARSH has been developed by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), ranked second among the IT companies globally, and operating in 149 locations across 46 countries. Surely, TCS knows how to handle a project like SPARSH even if DAD doesn’t.
The project cost is around Rs 158 crore, of which Rs 10 crore has been spent on software development, Rs 68 crore on hardware, and the remaining Rs 70 crore will be spent on maintenance over the next five years till 2027. This expenditure will be met by the DAD from its own budget.
To raise the bogey of internet connectivity at this juncture when India is moving towards 5G communication networks is droll. In any case, a pensioner does not have to carry out any operation on the SPARSH portal for sanction and disbursement of pension. As for grievance redressal, or any assistance that the pensioners may require for tracking the status of sanction or disbursement of their pensions, an elaborate system has been instituted.
The DAD has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology under which 4.5 lakh Common Service Centres across the country, down to the level of each of the 6,614 Gram Panchayats, will assist the veterans free of charge. This arrangement is supplemented by a network of 161 Regimental Record and other DAD Offices and 861 branches of two public and one private sector banks. More banks have evinced interest in providing these services. Eventually, help will be at hand for the veterans within a radius of 5 km.
These service centres will, of course, charge a fee for rendering a variety of services, including submission of the annual ‘Life Certificate’, but according to reliable estimates, even if every pensioner avails every service provided by them, the total annual cost to the DAD would be less than Rs 10 crore, as against approximately Rs 200 crore which is presently paid annually to the PDAs for disbursement of pension. With the passage of time, the staff strength in the 64 odd Defence Pension Disbursement Offices (DPDOs), which too will function as common service centres, is expected to be halved, apart from rendering the staff presently involved in settlement and audit of pension accounts and payment schedules, redundant.
The averment that SPARSH has no advantage is amusing. Apart from eliminating physical movement of pension sanction claims from 2,000 plus offices to three PSAs as at present, and movement of PPOs from these PSAs to thousands of PDAs across the country, SPARSH holds a great promise in terms of cutting down on processing time and enhancing accuracy. Going by the results achieved so far, it has reduced the average time taken for sanctioning pensions to current retirees from 4 months to just 17 days, for the first payment of gratuity and commuted pensions from one month to 1-2 days, and grievance redressal from 30 days to merely 3-4 days.
(The author is Former Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).