The Supreme Court on Monday pulled up the Ministry of Defence over the delay in payment of arrears of One Rank-One Pension (OROP) to eligible pensioners of the armed forces and sought an explanation from the secretary concerned for issuing a communication extending the timeline for payments fixed by the court.
On January 9, the top court granted time till March 15 to the Centre for payment of total arrears of OROP. But on January 20, the ministry issued a communication that the arrears shall be paid in four yearly installments which has been challenged by a group of ex-servicemen.
Observing that the sanctity of the judicial process has to be maintained, a bench headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud asked the Ministry to “set its house in order” and directed the secretary to file a personal affidavit explaining his position.
“We gave you an extension till March 15 for payment of arrears. Now in the face of our orders of January 9, how can you issue a communication that you will pay the amount in four equal installments? Why shouldn’t we proceed against your secretary? In the face of our order, how can you pass an order by an administrative circular extending time…
“You tell your secretary that we are going to take action against him for issuing that communication. The sanctity of the judicial process has to be maintained. Either the secretary withdraws it, or we are going to issue a contempt notice to the Ministry of Defense and that will be very serious,” the bench also comprising justices PS Narasimha and JB Pardiwala said.
The top court said the ministry had no business to take the law into its hands and issue unilateral communication to extend the time for payment.
“We have fixed March 15 and you had no business to say that the money will be paid in installments. Here you are not fighting a war. Here you are fighting against the rule of law. Set your house in order. This is not the way the ministry of defence to go about it,” the bench observed.
At the outset, Additional Solicitor General N Venkataraman told the court that the ministry should be given time to carry out the exercise as per the court’s order.
“We have already started to comply with the order. This can be heard in the second or third week of April when we will be able to file better compliance,” the ASG said.
Venkataraman submitted that out of 22 lakh pensioners, the government has already given money to eight lakh pensioners amounting to Rs 2,500 crores.
“By March 31, we plan to make a one-time payment to family pensioners. We are not trying to withhold it. We just want to make the payment in a staggered manner,” he said.
The apex court was hearing an application filed by the Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement (IESM) seeking payments of arrears in one installment instead of four installments.
Senior advocate Huzefa Ahmadi, appearing for the army personnel, asked how could the government unilaterally modify the deadline set by the court.
“When this court passed an order how can the department reserve the right to modify it? Four lakh pensioners have passed away in the interregnum and they cannot claim the pension. They will never get the benefit,” he said.
The bench then directed the secretary to file a personal affidavit on the issue.
“We direct the secretary concerned in Defence Ministry to file a personal affidavit explaining circumstances in which such unilateral decision to extend the time for payment was made inspite of clear direction of this court,” the top court said in its order.
The bench also warned the ASG that interest at the rate of 9 percent will be imposed if arrears are not cleared by March 15.
The apex court posted the matter after the Holi vacation.
The top court had earlier asked the Centre to ensure that all arrears are paid expeditiously to the pensioners of the armed forces and that there is no further delay.
The government had moved the top court in December 2022, seeking an extension of time till March 15, 2023 for the payment of arrears of OROP scheme to all eligible pensioners of the armed forces.
This was the second extension given by the top court to the Union government to pay the arrears after it had first moved the top court in June, last year and sought three months to compute and make payments in accordance with the March 16, 2022 verdict of the top court.
The top court’s 2022 verdict came on the plea filed by the Indian Ex-servicemen Movement (IESM) through advocate Balaji Srinivasan against the Centre’s formula.
It had said in terms of the communication dated November 7, 2015, the benefit of OROP was to be effected from July 1, 2014 and the communication states that “in future, the pension would be re-fixed every five years”.
“Such an exercise has remained to be carried out after the expiry of five years possibly because of the pendency of the present proceedings,” the bench had said, adding, “We accordingly order and direct that in terms of the communication dated November 7, 2015, a re-fixation exercise shall be carried out from July 1, 2019, upon the expiry of five years.
“Arrears payable to all eligible pensioners of the armed forces shall be computed and paid over accordingly within a period of three months,” it had said.