The quiet transformation in defence pensions
The media scape is rife with narratives which may lead distinguished retired defence services personnel to get apprehensive about the quiet transformation which is happening in the management of Defence Pensions in India. The System for Pension Administration–Raksha or SPARSH, as announced in the Union Budget 2017-18, is a landmark policy decision of the Government of India, to provide comprehensive web-based interactive pension disbursement system for defence pensioners. The project is managed and implemented by the Defence Accounts Department under the aegis of the Ministry of Defence, with the support of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) as the software development partner.
This article is not a declaration but a presentation of contrast, between legacy systems and technological innovation, and between facts and fiction. The phenomenon of governance in India has evolved, where numerous initiatives are being designed keeping the beneficiary at the centre. The Government is increasingly relying on digital systems to ensure transparency, efficiency and effective public service delivery.
It is a privilege that the Defence Accounts Department, over the course of more than two and half centuries, continues to serve defence pensioners whose number is nearly 33 lakh presently. Within this system, steeped in history, outdated processes and regulations, SPARSH comes as a positive disruption, where the Department has adopted a paradigm shift towards enhancing and ensuring right pension to the right person at the right time by a transparent and participative process.
There is a need to examine these legacy systems and corresponding transformational innovation. For the benefit of the reader, here is a short primer on the old system of Pensions Management, which involves nearly 2,500 offices across the Defence Services. When service personnel retire, their service details including their names, service records, commendations and details of their dependents inter alia are verified by the Pensions Initiating Agencies, be it Record Offices, Directorates, Head of Departments, or others.
These details are sent to the Pension Sanctioning Agencies (PSAs) which are various offices of the Defence Accounts Department, namely, Principal Controller of Defence Accounts (PCDA) Pensions in Prayagraj, Jt. CDA (Air Force) in New Delhi and PCDA (Navy) in Mumbai for audit and sanction of pension payment and generation of the Pension Payment Order (PPO). The PPO is communicated to the pensioners and the various Pension Disbursing Agencies (PDAs) such as Banks and Defence Pension Disbursement Offices (DPDOs).
At this point, it is impressed upon the reader the importance and difficulty of audit. Errors in details are difficult to rectify by any singular agency and disconnect within the ecosystem is a bane to efficiency. The systems are old and need reform.
The scale and size of the process is concomitant with the size and complexity of how the Indian Armed Forces operate–with their own rules and customs. This is why even the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) in their report on Defence Pensions recommended that the three pillars-Record Offices, PSAs, and PDAs- should be connected online, enabling automated flow of information, in a secure mode, with proper validation and security checks.
The SPARSH Portal bridges a long-pending lacuna in public service delivery, where the portal takes on the responsibility of connecting and interfacing with all stakeholders in the pension ecosystem. More than 5.13 lakh pensioners have been onboarded to SPARSH, whereas more than 27 lakh pensioners continue to be served by the legacy system. There is verifiable data of massive improvements in processing time and sanction, with majority of the PPOs being generated within a week.
There was a delay in credit of April 2022 monthly pension to 58,275 pensioners via SPARSH due to technical and procedural reasons was immediately addressed and pension was credited within four working days. In contrast, the department continues to actively pursue non-credit of pension in nearly 1.2 lakh cases which are disbursed by the banks. SPARSH has the capability and the flexibility to generate corrigendum PPOs at the click of a button. Fresh cases i.e. the new retirees who are coming onboard SPARSH have expressed satisfaction at the ease of pension processing.
SPARSH services have further been expanded across more than 4 lakh Common Service Centres (CSCs) to ensure last mile access to pensioners, established backend linkage to fetch Aadhaar-based Jeevan Pramaan directly on the portal. Recently, a mobile number updation utility has also been deployed for pensioners for better communication and ease of access.
Principal Controller of Defence Accounts (PCDA) Pensions, Prayagraj is the primary agency for Pension Sanction on behalf of the Defence Accounts Department. However, it would be simplistic to assume only one agency or office is completely empowered and autonomous in function within a careful system of checks and balances.
The Pension Regulations for various Defence Services, as approved by the Parliament, are the primary rules based on which the Defence Pensions are regulated in India. The requirement for annual identification or life certification is drawn from these regulations, which bounds the Department as well all other audit agencies in India. The rule of law is the sine qua non of a functioning democracy.
TCS has been brought on board as software development partner. The SPARSH Portal has undergone testing and security clearances from the highest cyber security agencies in the country, to ensure that the handling of data of ex-servicemen and defence pensioners is protected and secured.
With two rounds of pilots being run from February 2020 and despite the advent of a global pandemic, SPARSH was deployed in a phased manner successfully for the civilians and consequently for the Indian Air Force, Indian Navy and the Indian Army. The technical complexity of pensions management is matched by the innovation.
The SPARSH Portal has truly transformed this entire process and it has been the constant effort on part of the Ministry of Defence to ensure that Defence Pensioners are provided the best possible services, which is a vast improvement over the legacy system described above. The pensioner should not have to run from pillar to post, seeking to move offices and departments for their rightful pension.
The Department is using technology to do so. The Defence Accounts Department, with the sincere cooperation of the Service Headquarters, is striving to ensure satisfaction of all stakeholders and welcomes the continued cooperation of the defence pensioners in this endeavour to transform defence pensions management in India.
The writer is an officer of the Indian Defence Accounts Service (IDAS) and is the current Controller General of Defence Accounts (CGDA). Views expressed are personal.