Defense Over Development—Are We A Paranoid Nation?

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Why are our national priorities so skewed?
Why are our national priorities so skewed?

We are not supposed to top the list of nations buying arms while we have a long way to go in terms of development

TAHMINA LASKAR

“…a hierarchical society was only possible on basis of poverty and ignorance. To return to the agricultural past, as some thinkers in the beginning of the 21st century dreamt of doing, was not a practical solution. It conflicted with the tendency toward mechanization which had become quasi-instinctive throughout almost the whole world, and moreover, any country which remained industrially backward was helpless in a military sense and was bound to be dominated, directly or indirectly, by its more advanced rivals…”

“Even when the weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labor power without producing anything that can be consumed. ..In principle the war effort is always so planned as to eat up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population. In practice the needs of the population are always underestimated, with the result that there is chronic shortage of necessities of life; but it is looked on as an advantage. It is deliberate  policy to keep the favored groups somewhere near to the brink of hardship, because a general state of scarcity increases the importance of small privileges and thus magnifies the distinction between one group and another.”

No, these are not lines from some socialist economic theory class; these lines appear in George Orwell’s fiction titled 1984. Being fictional however does not diminish the importance and hard hitting quality of the discourse.

Recently I came across a news item which quoted a research that as per the latest data on international arms transfers released by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the volume of Indian imports of major weapons rose by 111% between 2004-08 and 2009-13, and its share of the volume of international arms imports increased from 7% to 14%.  India remains the biggest buyer of arms in the world, importing nearly three times as many weapons as its nearest competitors China and Pakistan over the last five years. The major suppliers of arms to India in 2009-13 were Russia (accounting for 75% of imports) and the US (7%), which for the first time became the second largest arms supplier to India.

This may sound very happy news to pseudo nationalists and jingoists but it got me concerned as a citizen of India.  We are not supposed to top the list in buying arms while we have a long way to go in terms of development.

The Human Development Report 2013 released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), ranked India at a low 136 among 186 countries on its human development index (HDI) — a composite measure of life expectancy, access to education and income levels. The report placed India at the near-bottom of countries which have reached ‘medium development’. If some other comparisons are made, it appears that on one hand India has the eighth largest defense budget in the world and an abysmally low ranking having lowest public expenditure on higher education per student (as per UNESCO) on the other.

One could not help but wonder as to why our priorities are so hopelessly skewed and misplaced. It might be due to the fact that we feel vulnerable as against the world and it is strategically important for our defense to be on its toes. But even if I give the benefit of doubt to this very argument it does not comfort me much. Aren’t we more vulnerable when we are hungry, diseased and illiterate?  When I was young the pictures from Somalia used to haunt me; they still do. How painful it is to not even have minimum opportunity to carry on life.

India’s fate need not be like that and for that our priorities need to be reordered. Our defense is no doubt most important but arms race definitely should not be our priority. Our leaders need to confront the fact that international economic cooperation would yield a lot of results but the priority of such cooperation needs to be focused on the development agenda rather than defense. A large part of our citizenry also needs to realize that what kind of policy makers it votes to power and what they stand for.

We are a welfare state and that should form the very core of our existence, an inflated defense budget however tells the story otherwise. The ‘developed nation’ tag would not come with ideas of powers locked on defense. Rather a nation becomes developed when it makes its weakest sections empowered and independent.

Tahmina Laskar is a New Delhi-based blogger and activist and Deputy Manager (Legal) of Sahulat Microfinance, India.  She blogs at www.tamz84.com.  Views are personal.

 

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