The Supreme Court on Monday (March 20) gave the Centre leeway to pay in installments ₹28,000 crore in arrears due to veterans under the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme.

The staggered payment of OROP arrears would be made to various categories of eligible pensioners, totalling 21 lakh persons, from April 2023 till February 2024.

The entirety of the arrears was supposed to be paid by March 2023. The alternative arrangement was made after the Ministry of Defence, represented by Attorney General R Venkataramani, said the Ministry of Finance had conveyed its inability to pay the entirety of the OROP arrears “in one go”.

The hearing saw a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud toss back to the government a “sealed cover” containing documents purportedly on the “financial implications” and “live wire” issues connected to the OROP expenditure.

‘No secrets’

Chief Justice Chandrachud told the government that there are “no secrets in the court”. The petitioner-pensioners should be able to access every record the government files in the apex court.

“This is not fair. I am personally averse to sealed covers. It is fundamentally contrary to the judicial process and principle of fair trial. The court has to be transparent… We want to put a stop to the sealed cover procedure in the Supreme Court,” Chief Justice Chandrachud told Venkataramani.

The Attorney General said the documents were confidential as they contained “some issues of sensitivity” and “financial balancing of the whole economy”. “Then you should claim privilege… Return them (sealed cover) to the Attorney General,” the CJI told the court staff.

Venkataramani said funds have to be disbursed for other needs including salaries, regular pension, social security for the needy and the poor, food and fertiliser subsidy, etc.

Extending the time for payment of OROP arrears, the court ordered the government to pay the dues to family pensioners, and gallantry awardees in a single installment on or before April 30, 2023. There are six lakh of them.

Pensioners aged 70 years or above should be paid their arrears on or before June 30, 2023, either in one or multiple instalments spaced within the time period. There are four lakh pensioners in this category. The remaining 11 lakh pensioners should be paid their arrears in equal installments on or before August 30, 2023; November 30, 2023; and February 28, 2024.

Venkataramani, reading out from a note, said the budgetary outlay for the Ministry of Defence for 2022-23 was ₹5.85-lakh crore. Of this, an amount of ₹1.32-lakh crore is for the planned expenditure for total pension disbursements during the year.

An amount of ₹1.2-lakh crore was already disbursed in February 2023. The ₹28,000 crore in OROP arrears is for the period between 2019-2022, which is an “additional component”.

(Krishnadas Rajagopal is a legal correspondent with The Hindu)