Sitting ducks

India as a developing nation is carrying with it a population burden of nearly 1.5 billion, and its economy is not very sound despite all the big talk by successive governments. Resource crunch is a serious situation vis-a-vis pushing development in various sectors. This scenario is further worsened by administrative lethargy and the lack of a strong political leadership. A glaring case in point is the SOS from the Army about poor budgetary allocations. According to information made public, there is not enough money even for emergency purchases, no funds for strengthening border infrastructure, and no allocation for undertaking construction of strategic roads along the China border.

Worse, it is learnt that nearly 70 per cent of the Army’s equipment is obsolete or vintage. Caught in such a scenario, there’s little that can be expected from the brave soldiers manning the borders, and tragically they are just sitting ducks, faced as they are with the aggressive designs of Pakistan on the one hand and China on the other.

The SOS comes from Vice Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen Sarath Chand when he deposed to the parliamentary standing committee on defence. He has also made it clear that the Modi government’s Make in India initiative is failing to take off in the defence sector, despite it raising high hopes. This may be seen against the backdrop of a statement made Tuesday by Army Chief General Bipin Rawat that Pakistan’s ongoing proxy war will continue on the western border. According to Gen Rawat, the enemy’s army has opened an alternative front in its fight against India and is using trained commandos in the garb of terrorists to infiltrate the LoC and stage deadly attacks inside this country.

India is passing through one of the worst times in the matter of belligerence from two neighbours with strong military might – Pakistan and China. The ‘terrorist’ attacks on military bases in Pathankot, followed by Uri and various other places that happened during the term of the present government taught the nation bitter lessons. A minor surgical strike across the LoC did not yield any great result. Nor did it reduce terrorist infiltrations into Kashmir. Then, China opened another front on the north-eastern border, near Sikkim, by engaging the Indian army on Bhutanese soil at Doklam. India might have stopped the Chinese for now but, with a more powerful Xi Jinping around, China can be trusted to raise the bar sooner or later. None of these concerns found expression in the Defence Budget presented in Parliament this time, with allocations seeing only a marginal rise. The reason is not far to seek. This being the pre-election year, keeping the civil society in good humour is the first priority of a democratically propelled government; and allocations rose for the sectors such as health with an eye on votes.

The Army this time had been given Rs17,756 crore less than what it had sought. Governments have to do a balancing act when it comes to making allocations for various sectors. At the same time, danger signals from across the border cannot be treated lightly. Winning an election might be a first priority for a ruling party, but security and defence of the nation must be a matter of prime importance for any government worth its name. “Allocation of Rs21,338 crore for modernisation is insufficient even to cater for committed payments of Rs29,033 crore for the 123 ongoing schemes, emergency procurements and other requirement . . .” so goes Lt Gen Chand’s presentation before the parliamentary panel. With low budgetary allocations, as many as 25 projects that the Army had initiated under the Make in India initiative would end up in a freeze.

A mention has also been made of the failure on the part of the government to create a roll-over fund for Army’s modernisation. The aim is to ensure that funds allocated for various purchases a year do not lapse in cases where purchases could not be made; and such amounts could be used separately the next year under a corpus fund for future purchases. While the defence ministry was favourably disposed to the proposal, the finance ministry reportedly shot this down. Curiously, finance minister Arun Jaitley was the one who headed the defence ministry under the Modi government for a major part. He should understand the need for such steps which will not strain the normal resource allocation process. Maybe he has little time for administration at this juncture.

What all these go to show is that the present government has not attached the seriousness that it should have accorded to the defence sector through its four-year rule. This is evident also from the frequent changes effected at the level of the minister who handled the ministry — Jaitley handling it as additional charge for a while, then Manohar Parrikar stepping in for some time, the ministry getting back to the finance minister’s hands for an interim period and then ending up with the present person, Nirmala Sitharaman. It seems like the Modi government views the defence ministry as one more department that does not require much attention. All talk of nationalism will vanish into thin air when the nation itself gets seriously threatened.

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