India`s shopping spree in the arms bazaar - Irfan Husain - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

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OVER the years, whenever I have written anything even remotely critical of India, I have been immediately bombarded with emails from Indian readers, reminding me about their country’s rapid economic growth, and how irrelevant Pakistan is to its trajectory. But when I read a recent story in this newspaper about India’s sharply rising defence expenditure, I was tempted into commenting.
In its latest report on global arms imports, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) finds that between 2006 and 2010, India accounted for 9 per cent of all international arms imports, putting it ahead of all other arms importers. Siemon Wezman, a SIPRI senior fellow said: “Just from what they have already ordered, we know that in the coming few years, India will be the top importer.” China is in second place, with 6 per cent of global imports. India’s defence budget is $32.5 billion, a 40 per cent hike from two years ago, and it imports 70 per cent of its arms, despite possessing an enormous armaments manufacturing industry.
Many Indians are justifiably proud of their country’s rapid economic growth, with several taking the trouble to send out emails that gloat over the “India Shining” image that has taken hold in the West. Indeed, many people around the world are riveted by what they see as the close economic race between India and China, citing the high GDP growth rates achieved by both countries.
But as Dr Amartya Sen pointed out in an op-ed article in The Hindu a couple of months ago, a comparison of GDP rates is an imperfect guide to where the two countries stand. Dr Sen is an Indian economist who wears his Nobel Prize and many other achievements lightly. I met him once in New Delhi at a conference ten years ago, and came away deeply impressed by his deep concern for his fellow human beings, as well as his razor-sharp intellect. In his article, Dr Sen puts the India-China race in perspective:
“Let me look at some numbers… Life expectancy at birth in China is 73.5 years; in India it is still 64.4 years. Infant mortality rate is 50 per thousand in India, compared with just 17 in China… China’s literacy rate is 94 per cent, compared with India’s 65 per cent, and mean years of schooling in India is 4.4 years, compared with 7.5 years in China… Almost half our children are undernourished compared with a very tiny proportion in China. Only 66 per cent of Indian children are immunised with triple vaccine (DPT) as opposed to 97 per cent in China. Comparing ourselves with China in these really important matters would be a very good perspective, and they can both inspire us and give us illumination about what to do – and what not to do, particularly the glib art of doing nothing.”
Perhaps even more damningly, Dr Sen makes some telling comparisons between India and Bangladesh, a country with less than half of its giant neighbour’s GDP per capita. Life expectancy in Bangladesh is 66.9 years compared with 64.4 years in India. The proportion of underweight children is slightly lower (41.3 per cent) in Bangladesh than in India (43.5 per cent), and the female literacy rate in Bangladesh is higher than in India. In terms of under-5 mortality rate, immunisation, and overall infant mortality, Bangladesh fares better despite its low GDP per capita.Dr Sen proceeds to hammer home his point: “To be sure, there are large numbers of people for whom growth alone does just fine, since they are already privileged and need no social assistance. Economic growth only adds to their economic and social opportunities… But the exaggerated concentration on their lives, which the media tend often to display, gives an incomplete picture of what is happening to Indians in general.
“And perhaps more worryingly, this group of relatively privileged and increasingly prosperous Indians can easily fall for the temptation to treat economic growth as an end in itself, for it serves directly as the means of their opulence and improving lifestyles without further social efforts… The fact is, however, that India cannot be seen as doing splendidly if a great many Indians – sometimes most Indians – are having very little improvement in their deprived lives…”
According to the UN, some 410 million Indians are living below the poverty line. Under these circumstances, they may well wish to know why their government is spending such obscene amounts on arms. Gung-ho nationalists will no doubt cite the dangers the country faces from China, Pakistan and the domestic Naxalite insurgents. But almost invariably, those invoking national interest to go on a spending spree in the international arms bazaar tend to be sleek and well-fed. It is never the poor who demand more spending on defence.
In Pakistan, of course, things are even worse: here, the military writes its own cheques, and civilians have no say where the budget is spent. And despite the increasing burden the armed forces places on us, we are even more insecure than ever. No doubt India’s enhanced expenditure on arms will be used by our generals to jack up their swollen budget even more. Meanwhile, many flood victims are still homeless, and hunger and poverty stalk the land. If there’s one thing the ruling elites of India and Pakistan share, it is selfishness.
Indians are quick to point out that their defence expenditure is not Pakistan-specific, and they have China as a potential foe to contend with. But as Rahul Bedi, an analyst with Jane’s Defence Weekly writes: “India has ambitions to become first a continental and then a regional power. To become a big boy, you need to project your power.”
No doubt this ambitious agenda will console the 410 million Indians struggling to get by on less than $1.25 a day.
Tailpiece: As somebody who has supported the Palestinian struggle for much of my life, I was sickened to read a report about the slaughter of an Israeli family, including a three-month baby, in a West Bank settlement. No cause can possibly justify such mindless cruelty. How can the killers hope to win support through such acts of naked terrorism?

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