With the forces in need of massive infrastructure and equipment upgrades, the Budget failed the defence sector
This budget has been thin on details, perhaps to stave off any criticism on the government’s performance should it fail in its commitment. The Modi 2.0 government is still carrying the burden of unmet targets of its first term in office, one which was meticulous about fine print and numbers, and, understandably, doesn’t want to look blunderous. Still, nobody had expected Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to skip mentioning defence in her speech and not increase the outlay beyond what was allocated in the interim budget. This was disappointing for many, considering the Lok Sabha elections were fought on the tailwinds of Balakot with the forces foregrounded as part of the national security discourse and the Rafale storm drumming in the need for jet acquisition for a combat-ready fleet. More so because Sitharaman, having been the Defence Minister before, was expected to be aware of the realistic situation of the forces. The budget for India’s defence sector has remained unchanged at `3.18 lakh crore, the amount announced by the Modi 1.0 government in the interim budget in February. While fully aware of the grim prospects of the overall fiscal situation in the country, defence experts rued the fact that even as a percentage of the GDP, this was the lowest allocation since the 1962 war with China. On paper, there is a six per cent increase, but much of that anyway gets absorbed by inflation and rising costs of just maintaining the existing matrix, including human resources, both serving staff and pensioners. In fact, nobody drove it home better than Punjab Chief Minister and former Armyman Capt Amarinder Singh, who said critical sectors like defence just could not be overlooked no matter how trying the circumstance. Considering the budget was also a lot about vision and forward thinking, this sector ought to have had some definitive guidelines rather than the routine customs concessions on defence equipment. An allocated figure is not just about propaganda, its real intent is to ensure transparency between the government and its people on what needs to be done to address the country’s critical issues. One does not need to point out the glaring lacuna in equipment and infrastructure that would even compromise a conventional engagement in a conflict, should we be pushed that far. And considering the flashpoints in geo-politics, it would be quite stupid to not factor potential threats and be battle-ready. That’s just regarding the situation as is. Nobody is even talking about modernisation as we continue to buy upgraded old equipment. While the MiG-21 Bison that was flown by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was based on a 1960’s design, the airframe itself was over 40 years old that had been modified after the Kargil War. The Mirage 2000 jets used to penetrate Pakistan have been in service for over three decades and replacing these capable French fighters has been an unending struggle with several missed opportunities.
It is not that the forces have placed unrealistic expectations on Modi 2.0. They are just emphasising the acute nature of the resource and infrastructure crisis in the defence sector which is staring at us given the tardy processes of decades. Facts speak for themselves: The squadron strength of the Indian Air Force (IAF) is down to 30 instead of 42. And considering we have an extensive maritime stretch to monitor territorially, the Navy just doesn’t have enough ships. And it is in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) where China is flexing muscles and has added 80 new ships in the last five years. Some big ticket projects are lined up like the $5.4 billion worth of S-400 air defence system from Russia or the $2.6 billion MH-60 Romeo naval multi-role helicopters from the US besides air defence systems and drones. But even these committed deals mean that the defence budget would have to be at least three per cent of the GDP. Besides, what of routine requirements like assault rifles, artillery, military gear, all of which need immediate replenishment? If only, the budget points to the need to finally look seriously at defence manufacturing and production within the country, something that China, which we see as a template of Asian might, has successfully pursued and we have fallen way behind of.
Writer 7 Courtesy: The Pioneer