Rediff Logo Business The Rediff Music Shop Find/Feedback/Site Index
June 19, 1999


send this column to a friend

Commentary/ Dilip Thakore

A new deal for armed forces

The undeclared war on the Line of Control in the mountainous terrain of the Kargil district in Kashmir has taken a heavy toll on this nation's brave men in uniform from all over the country. Thus far, over 250 officers and men have been killed in action and over 1,200 seriously wounded. The silver lining to the many grim and often hand-to-hand battles which are being fought in the world's highest battlefields and most climatically hostile terrain is that it has united the people behind the armed forces and made them aware that the nation has been gifted with a brave and exemplarily apolitical defence establishment.

Unfortunately for several decades the nation has been saddled with a political class whose conduct has been the polar opposite of the officers and men who serve in the armed forces. For over five decades they have failed to provide the political, diplomatic and inspirational support which is the implicit social contract between the political establishment and the armed forces. They have recklessly interfered with the carefully conceptualised leadership development processes of the armed forces, and after every war they have sacrificed the blood and iron gains made on the battlefield by the nation's skilled and courageous men in uniform. If post-independence India has been blessed with a defence establishment which, in sharp contrast to its counterparts in most developed nations, has remained apolitical and constitutionally correct, the credit must be given to the largely unsung chiefs of the armed forces rather than to the nation's irresponsible political leaders.

However, it would be a grave mistake to take India's armed forces and the defence establishment for granted. While the officers and men of the Indian Army and Airforce are discharging their constitutional duty in the harsh environments of Siachen and Kargil even while continuing counter-insurgency operations in the politically mismanaged North-East, there is a groundswell of resentment within the armed forces and middle-class India against the political establishment which if not addressed bodes ill for post-independence India's democratic experiment.

Though the nation's budgeted expenditure on defence is a massive Rs 40,000 crore in 1999-2000, the hard reality is that this huge outlay is insufficient for the defence establishment which has to sustain a standing army of over a million personnel, and support a blue sea navy (which is obliged to guard a 3,000 mile coastline) and air force with over 1,000 combat aircraft. But unfortunately this huge annual expenditure is necessary because of poor political leadership and diplomacy which has resulted in post-independence India antagonising all its neighbours in South Asia and earning the wrath of communist China which inflicted a crushing defeat upon a poorly equipped and led Indian army in 1962.

It is also pertinent to note that though this recurring annual expenditure on defence has imposed a heavy burden upon the Indian economy and has hit the education and health sectors of the economy particularly hard, it is modest by international standards. In dollar terms it translates into an annual expenditure of $ 10 billion which compares unfavourably with the defence expenditures of China ($ 35 billion), Britain ($ 33 billion), Japan ($ 44 billion) and the US ($ 266 billion). And even though India's annual defence outlay is more than that of Pakistan ($ 3.5 billion), Japan ($ 44 billion) the latter nation spends 5.7 per cent of its GDP on defence as against India's 2.8 per cent.

However, despite this country's relatively modest defence budgetary outlay there is no argument for raising it. Given the widespread poverty, illiteracy and poor healthcare facilities which are shameful characteristics of the Indian economy, a higher outlay for defence notwithstanding, the genuine and pressing needs of the armed forces is morally indefensible. In the final analysis the guns versus butter argument is valid and budgetary defence expenditure has to be carefully balanced against the needs of other sectors of the economy.

Therefore, given Indian society's equally moral obligation to ensure that the nation's soldiers, seamen and air force personnel are properly paid, clad and equipped with contemporary weaponry, extra-budgetary resources have to be found or facilitated to meet the genuine and justifiable needs of India's brave sons in uniform.

In this connection there is much that India's political class and Indian society generally can learn from the People's Republic of China. On mainland China the central government's annual budgeted expenditure is the equivalent of $ 9 billion. But the annual expenditure of the armed forces is over $ 33 billion. Behind this astonishing statistic is the reality that the People's Liberation Army is one of the biggest business organisations in communist China. The PLA undertakes infrastructure and civil construction projects for which it is paid and it owns over 1,000 well-managed and profitable trading and service companies. Hence it is able to provide excellent terms of service to its troops and to equip them thoroughly.

Likewise in this country it is hardly a secret that the nation's best construction engineers are to be found in the armed forces. Therefore in times of peace to augment their revenue the three wings of the armed forces should be permitted to bid for and undertake quality infrastructure and civil construction projects which the Indian economy desperately needs. This will make it possible for the armed forces to earn additional disposable incomes which will enable their leaderships to raise the pay, perquisites and service conditions of their personnel particularly the jawan (infantryman) who is probably the worst paid soldier in the contemporary world.

The armed forces also own well-equipped research and development laboratories and training establishments. These facilities could be permitted to undertake R&D and personnel training projects for Indian corporates to create new income streams for the defence establishment. Indian corporates also need to take a closer look at the non-classified R&D work of the armed forces some of which can have profitable commercial applications. It is useful to remember that the new generation of carbon graphite tennis rackets and most light-weight automobile ancillaries are the by-products of the laboratories of the US defence establishment.

An unpleasant characteristic of post-independence Indian society is that it has poor institution building skills. Thanks to the restraint, maturity and constitutional correctness of successive leaders of the armed forces (including Admiral Bhagwat), the nation has been blessed with a model defence establishment. The outbreak of a " war-like situation" in inhospitable terrain in Kashmir has once again highlighted the importance and dedication of one of the few institutions of which the nation can be proud of -- the Indian army. Therefore this is a good time for a cerebral rather than emotional contribution from society to make life somewhat easier for the brave men in uniform who protect the nation's territory and integrity.

Dilip Thakore


News archives

Tell us what you think of this column