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Friday, June 25, 1999 Published at 13:33 GMT 14:33 UK

World: South Asia

Gurkhas fight for equal benefits

The death of Sergeant Rai has attracted attention in Nepal

By South Asia Analyst Alastair Lawson

The death of a British Gurkha in Kosovo this week has revived an old feud between retired Gurkha soldiers and the UK Government.

Brits in Balkans
Sergeant Balaram Rai, 35, died on Monday with his British commander Lieutenant Gareth Evans, while clearing unexploded Nato bombs from a school west of Pristina.

It is not just the fact that he was killed. The decision to deploy Gurkhas in Kosovo in the first place has been sharply criticised by ex-servicemen's associations in Nepal.

They say Gurkhas should not be used in internal conflicts. They also say Gurkhas should receive the same pension and retirement benefits as other British army soldiers which, at the moment, they do not.

[ image: Sergeant Rai died while clearing Nato bombs]
Sergeant Rai died while clearing Nato bombs
British army Gurkhas arriving by helicopter were among the first troops into Kosovo. It was and remains a hazardous operation in which their lives have constantly been put at risk.

Yet the widow of Bala Ram Rai, who was killed while clearing unexploded bombs, will receive less than one-tenth of pension and other pay-outs that an equivalent British soldier would receive.

Diplomatic approach

Yubraj Sangola, a Nepalese lawyer representing the Gurkha Ex-Servicemen's Organisation, says the difference in pensions received by soldiers who served in the same army could be a breach of international law.

[ image: British Gurkhas were among the first to arrive in Kosovo]
British Gurkhas were among the first to arrive in Kosovo
"Initially we thought that this was a very serious legal issue, so we should go directly to the British court.

"But once we identified a British counterpart - a British lawyer - to work with us, we had a very long interaction and ... came to the conclusion that we have to exhaust the diplomatic approach first," Mr Sangola told the BBC.

"We are trying to pressurise the governments of both countries to come to the table and then identify a final sum for an amicable solution. If we fail in the diplomatic process then we'll jump into the legal action," he said.

Mr Sangola says many Gurkhas who served in the British army are now living in abject poverty. Those who served less than 15 years, he says, receive no pension at all.

The issue has now become so controversial that the Nepalese parliament is backing his campaign for retired Gurkhas and their families to receive better pension packages, paid in British sterling rather than Nepalese rupees.

Different rates of pay

[ image: Gurkhas perform the same duties as other British soldiers]
Gurkhas perform the same duties as other British soldiers
Gurkhas perform the same duties as their British counterparts, including military parades with Nepalese bagpipes.

The UK Government staunchly denies, however, that it discriminates against them on the pensions issue. It points out that last year 26,000 ex-Gurkhas received pension increases, some of which were more than 50%.

But this did not satisfy Deepak Bahadur Garung of the Nepal Ex-Servicemens' Association which has more than 12,000 ex-British army Gurkhas members.

"The Indian Gurkhas get exactly the same rates of pay and pension as Indian citizens do. Likewise the Gurkhas serving in the Singapore police force also get exactly the same rates of pay and pensions as their counterparts in Singapore. So why don't the UK Government give the same rates of pay and pensions," Mr Garung asked.

Feeling of betrayal

Nowhere is this ill feeling more clearly felt than in Dharan, in the south-east of Nepal.

Here the local economy relies on the income provided by Gurkhas who served in the British army. It is estimated there are more than 5,000 of them who live in the town.

Many, such as Bijai Limbu, feel that although better off than other Nepalese, they have still been betrayed by the UK Government.

"There are lots of people who were made redundant in the early 1960s and 1970s who haven't been paid well, and they are still living in a poor condition," Mr Limbu said.

Already the number of Gurkha riflemen serving in the British army has been drastically reduced over the last few years, as part of the government's defence savings.

If the government is forced to increase Gurkha pensions, it could decide to disband the regiment altogether, ending the decades-long special relationship between the Gurkhas and the British army.

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