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Nice guns, but the butter?

The amount India spends on health every year is about a seventh of its annual defence budget. This doesn't make sense, writes Madhur Singh.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2006 00:45 IST
Madhur Singh
Madhur Singh

The good news last week was that the Iraq war cost the Republicans the Congress. The bad news was that it cost the Americans $2 trillion. That is, roughly $300 for each one of the six billion-plus citizens of the world. Compare that with the $ 3 per head that the United States has been giving as aid to the poorest of African countries, and the scale of the anomaly becomes clearer.

While we shake our heads at the US, let us pause to take a look at some news reports closer home. India, a US Congressional report showed last week, has become the biggest military buyer in the developing world, having bought equipment to “modernise its defence forces” for $ 5.4 billion (roughly Rs 24,000 crore) in 2005. Our 2006-07 budget allocated Rs 89,000 crore for defence. And how much did we spend to modernise our ailing health system? Rs 12,546 crore. That is about one-seventh of our defence budget. Never mind that diarrhoea claims more lives every year in India than all the wars since Independence put together.

What’s going on here? How societies allocate their resources is a reflection of their values and priorities. What does it say about our priorities that we stand in awe of security and strategic analysts, and dismiss and ridicule those espousing social issues as airy-fairy, bleeding heart liberals? Idealism is all very well on paper, we say, but let us not forget that India is surrounded by unstable as well as hostile neighbours — Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and even Nepal. How can we live in such a neighbourhood and not arm ourselves for any eventuality?

So we spend six to seven times more on defence than on health or education because, after all, money is a scarce resource and there’s only so much of it to go around. And then, we’re perplexed at farmer suicides and water riots, and angry at Naxalites and those squatters spreading their filth outside our posh colonies.

This is not to say that defence spending alone is responsible for all our social ills. To a development practitioner, it would be absurd that we are proud to blast off a sizeable chunk of our GDP to send a man to the moon, but not spend enough to send all our children to school. Just as it is absurd that more money is spent globally on research on cosmetics than on research on health. The global aid spend is $ 50 billion, while the global military spend is $950 billion (2003 figures), despite the fact that more people die of HIV/Aids and even malaria around the world each year than they do in wars or armed conflicts.

To cite another example, the UNDP Human Development Report 2006 points out that it would take $10 billion annually to halve the number of people without access to clean water and sanitation — which is “less than five days’ worth of global military spending and less than half of what rich countries spend each year on mineral water”.

But, of course, it is not the development practitioner whose voice gets primacy in decision-making and resource-allocation. In the rigid hierarchies of knowledge that all societies create, it is the economist and the security expert whose knowledge we value most. This holds true for almost all societies today. The result, on the one hand, is an obsession with growth figures, with little or no consideration for the quality of growth. On the other hand, astronomically large expenditures get justified in the name of security. And it is assumed that there is only one way of looking at security — as ‘national’ security.

However, for the purpose of solving any of the problems that actually affect people — the citizens in whose name policy is made and budgets allocated — this definition is dangerously constricted and rigid. No one is denying that ‘national’, military security is essential. But what about other kinds of security? Security for the individual means not only security from aggression, but it also means security from structural violence — the violence that pervades the system and prevents an individual from attaining his or her full potential. Security, thus defined, means food security, job security, security from bodily assault, etc. It also means security from exploitation by greedy moneylenders and corrupt officials, from caste oppression, from want and deprivation. And it means freedom to be oneself and to express oneself.

That the world would be a better place if governments laid more emphasis on social rather than military security is obvious. But to effect this change of worldview is the challenge. The insularity and apathy of the Indian middle-classes is rather exceptional, although India is gradually acquiring a more vocal and activist civil society — as was evident at the India Social Forum recently. But we will have to get a lot more vocal and activist, and enlist many more among our ranks, in order to make our government understand that we want cleaner air and water more than — and before — another Kiev class aircraft carrier.


First Published: Nov 15, 2006 00:45 IST