Human cost of arms race

Friday 9 May 2003, by Amitabh PAL

If only a tiny fraction of social spending reaches the needy, at least it is doing some good, instead of defence spending that often literally ends up in smoke.

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

Who said this? No, it wasn’t a pacifist like Gandhi or Martin Luther King. It was General Dwight David Eisenhower, the supreme commander of all allied forces in Europe during the most momentous war that the world has ever seen - World War II - and later the President of the United States. I don’t usually start a column with a remark from someone else but I could not have found a more appropriate quote from a more authoritative source to warn the people and leaders of South Asia of the human cost of the arms race. If a general and a leader of a prosperous country like the United States could realise that spending on weapons steals money from the hungry and the needy, why can’t the generals and leaders of two not-so-prosperous countries like India and Pakistan?

I recently spotted an article in the New York Times that depressed me no end. It stated that India was the second-biggest importer of arms in the world in recent years and was expected to become the biggest importer in the coming decade. Indian defence spending has been rapidly increasing in the recent past. Arms imports is just one component of this increase. The elaborate nuclear strategic policy, for instance, that India has envisioned for deploying its nuclear weapons (with a land, sea and air-based triad) will, if implemented, gobble up untold millions of rupees in the coming years.

All told, the New York Times article estimates that India will spend at least $100 billion on defence in the coming decade. 100 billion dollars (4,800 billion Indian rupees)! How many children could be fed in that amount, how many sick people given relief, how many schools built, how many wells dug? At whose expense will all this spending on armaments be? The poor and the destitute of India. And who will be major beneficiaries of all the arms purchases? Weapon manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, salivating at the prospect.

I can hear the counterarguments: As Indian hawk K. Subrahmanyam put it to me a few years ago, a nation, like a family, has to feed and clothe itself but it also has to defend itself against its enemies. And, critics may ask, what about the corruption that ensures that only a tiny fraction of spending on social needs reaches the indigent?

There is indeed a shameful amount of corruption in social spending. But the amount involved is very often peanuts when compared to the corruption in defence procurement deals. Bofors, HDW, Tehelka. Many of the names associated with defence scandals have almost become part of folklore in India, with huge amounts of money involved in defence-related corruption. Besides, if only a tiny fraction of social spending reaches the needy, at least it is doing some good, instead of defence spending that often literally ends up in smoke.

I do acknowledge that a nation needs to defend itself, but at what cost? The primary security issue facing an enormous number of people in the region is that of finding job security enough to fulfil the minimum eating requirements for themselves and their loved ones. The states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar - among the largest in India - are a human wasteland, with educational and health indicators there being absolutely abysmal. They aren’t the only examples. Almost a thousand infants have reportedly died of malnutrition and neglect in the first two months of this year in the state of Maharashtra - one of the richest in the country.

I don’t mean to single out India. With the partial exceptions of Sri Lanka and the South Indian state of Kerala, the governments of South Asia have failed to meet even the basic needs of their people. No wonder that only parts of sub-Saharan Africa are less developed.

And I do not have to spell out for readers the dismal record of Pakistan in this respect. Pakistan spends a massive portion of its budget on defence and debt servicing, leaving little for the education and health needs of its citizens. Not surprisingly, on crucial indicators such as literacy, especially female literacy, Pakistan performs quite a bit worse than India. The point here is not to make comparisons but to underline that the people of the region are in the same dire straits. The questions then arises: What level of human misery is it moral for these countries to sustain to carry on with their current level of defence spending?

"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than on programmes of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

This time, the words are indeed that of the great American pacifist and civil-rights leader Martin Luther King. Judging by his criteria, India and Pakistan may already be past that stage.

Amitabh Pal is the managing editor of The Progressive magazine in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. He was formerly the editor of the Progressive Media Project, an op-ed service that sends out opinion pieces to hundreds of newspapers in the United States and other countries

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