In the week that US President Obama praised India’s Prime Minister Modi for his “ambitious vision to reduce extreme poverty” there were several media reports that placed Mr Modi’s laudable ambition at variance with his expenditure decisions.
First was the announcement on April 10 that India would buy 36 Rafale fighter aircraft from France at a cost of some 4 billion dollars. The second was six days later when India test fired its nuclear-capable Agni-III ballistic missile with a range of 3,000 km and capable of carrying warheads weighing over a ton..
Nuclear missiles don’t come cheap, and of course we don’t know and will never be told the real cost of any country’s nuclear weapons’ program, but an expert estimate for India in 2011 was five billion dollars a year which is a substantial chunk of the national budget.
Third was the report that “US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter is likely to visit India next month when the two sides are expected to ink the nearly $2.5 billion deal for 22 Apache [attack] and 15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters.” India’s financial commitment to the purchase of foreign military hardware is increasing day by day and there seems no end to the list of expensive weaponry being acquired.
The billions of dollars are mounting up. There is no apparent ceiling to military expenditure, and neither is there a limit to acquisition of wealth by India’s growing number of mega-rich, as evidenced by the proudly broadcast news that India now has 90 billionaires (total worth $295 billion) and was reported on May 7 as being “home to 56 of the world’s 2,000 largest and most powerful public companies.”
But then there is an interesting description of the other side of the Indian coin by Jean-Pierre Lehman, a visiting professor at a university in Rajasthan, about 70 miles from Delhi, who has no axe to grind but records and evaluates the Indian scene as he sees it at first hand:
Upon reaching the outskirts of Jaipur, the scene switches to hundreds and hundreds of dilapidated makeshift tents beneath which people live – or perhaps more accurately manage more or less to survive. This is far worse than poverty. It is destitution. It is people living in what can only be described as bestial conditions. There is of course no access to sanitation; people cook their meagre repasts on coal furnaces inside the tents — one of the major causes of death in India. The contrast with the swankiness of some of the residential and business districts of Jaipur is of chasm proportions — a vividly desperate illustration of the growing inequality in India. That people, our fellow humans, should live in such conditions in the early 21st century is a terrible indictment of Jaipur, of Rajasthan, of India, and indeed of humanity in general.
It is doubtful that anybody could convince them of a need for jet fighters, nuclear missiles or attack helicopters.
Like all the poor around the world — most notably in India’s neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh, but also in America and Britain and almost everywhere else — those at the bottom of the economic pile in India have no voice, no dignity, no hope. Some politicians do try hard to help them.
Prime Minister Modi is their leader and is certainly not hypocritical in that regard, unlike his enormously rich counterpart in Pakistan, but he won’t be able to alleviate poverty in his country for so long as he permits such massive military expenditure.
India was the world’s largest importer of military material in 2014 and the government authorized over 40 billion dollars in this year’s budget, excluding dozens of new commitments — so the nuclear missiles, fighter jets, and helicopters are only a start.
India’s military equipment order books include 7 frigates, at about ten billion dollars; another 400 helicopters for two billion or so; hundreds of medium artillery guns for at least 3 billion; 6 submarines costing 9 billion; and payment for a galaxy of other equipment whose manufacture will also provide massive employment — but mainly in other countries, and even in India only for the tiny number of those who are trained craftsmen (no women, of course).
India’s poor will benefit from neither profits nor work, because the money will go nowhere near them and they are unqualified for all but the most simple and meanest of jobs.
In his book Being Indian Pavan Varma observes only too accurately that in the Indian upper classes and rich (not by any means the same thing, as elsewhere) “there is a remarkable tolerance of inequity, filth and human suffering” and that “concern for the deprived and the suffering is not a prominent feature of the Indian personality.
The rich in India have always lived a life quite oblivious to the ocean of poverty around them” — from the times of the feudal rulers, the maharajahs and suchlike, whose luxury depended entirely on exploitation and subjugation of their peasantry.
Most foreigners who have lived in India will have experienced and been aghast at the nonchalance with which the poor are regarded. Indeed they are ignored, even by many decent upright middle-class people, the backbone of the country.
The poor deserve better, as Modi knows very well. He was not born into privilege or even in moderately secure financial circumstances but was a teenage tea-server in a railway station and has seen at first hand the squalor and despair of the submerged and suffering majority who must be taken out of hopelessness and shown that expectation of a decent, reasonable life is not confined to those born outside poverty.
They should — they must — be given the opportunity to better themselves and rise from destitution and exploitation to a point where they will be able to live as human beings and not as dismal serfs.
It is crucial for progress of humanity that the bodies and brains of human beings develop to the extent at which they can enjoy reasonable health and have the prospect of a variety of avenues of work. This is not happening in India, where over half a billion citizens live in conditions similar to those described by Professor Lehman or — barely believably — in even more dire squalor and misery.
Education is the most important aspect of national development, because it only through education that people can learn about skills they can acquire in order to earn a reasonable wage and live a decent life.
Above all, education is vital for people to acquire the rudimentary facts essential for them to understand basic health requirements and improve their standards of hygiene which — as Modi has made a point of highlighting — are abysmal.
In India over 40 per cent of children suffer from malnutrition. But “malnutrition” is a fancy word for “verging on starvation.” It means that countless millions of Indian children are hungry all the time. In the morning these children wake famished and can’t be given enough food to fill their bellies because their parents can’t afford to feed them.
Most don’t go to school and from a very early age have to find basic menial work ; if they have a midday mouthful it’s probably a piece of throwaway garbage from the streets. Back at home in the evening they eat what their parents have managed to scrounge during the day. They have no clean water or access to hygienic lavatories. Those who don’t die in childhood will spend their short adult years in casual employment or crime.
Mr Modi is aware of all this. He lived with it — in it — for many years and, of course, he wants to improve the lot of the starving mega-millions. But this will take organization and, above all things, money. And if a country spends vast sums on weapons it will have less to devote to improving infrastructure and education. We’re not talking about handouts because there is no point at all in that approach, especially in India, where any such funds are systematically plundered by corrupt officials.
No : it’s a matter of devoting funds to innovative job-creation projects. And it’s not just in India that this applies. If the leaders of India could manage to sit down with those of Pakistan and China — the nations against whom India’s military policy and posture are directed — and come to agreement about longstanding territorial disputes, then the roads to true prosperity would begin to open in all three countries.
There are faults in the stances of China and Pakistan concerning their disagreements with India on border matters, but India has not helped in any way by being aggressively inflexible concerning mediation and it is time for false pride to be replaced by pragmatism and common sense.
Disputes and confrontation over territory are futile and counter-productive and in this case have contributed enormously to these countries’ perceived requirement for masses of vastly expensive nuclear weapons and other military hardware.
Emphasizing national pride is an important political tool, and nuclear weapons are very impressive in an macabre sort of way. Unfortunately in pursuit of both it is always the poor who suffer most. Mr Modi is one of the few world leaders who could move to change this appalling state of affairs, and it must be hoped that he will place the interests of his half-billion poverty stricken citizens to the forefront of national policy. His “ambitious vision to reduce extreme poverty” must not be allowed to dim.
Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.