India faces a major problem when it comes to funding for defence. Despite tall promises and claims that defence would not be neglected or starved of funds, the recurring complaint is that there is a shortfall between what the three services -- Army, Air Force and Navy -- demand and what they get.
Reportedly, the three services received Rs 76,000 crore less than they asked for in 2018-19. This has raised concern that India’s defence modernisation and, therefore, preparedness is being adversely affected. With this in mind, the government extended the term of the 15th Finance Commission (15th FC) by a month to November 30, 2019. Also, its terms of reference were modified to “address serious concern regarding allocation of adequate, secure and non-lapsable funds for defence and internal security of India”.
Writing in a comment for Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), Amit Cowshish (Can fifteenth finance commission resolve funding problems of defence?”, IDSA Comment, July 24, 2019) points out that the idea of having a non-lapsable fund was announced in 2004-05 but nothing came of it. He points out that when the matter was first referred to the 13th Finance Commission, it ended up agreeing with the Ministry of Finance projection of 8.33% annual growth in defence budget. Whereas the 14th Finance Commission recommended a hike in defence revenue allocation while claiming that increase in defence capital allocation was “beyond its scope”. So nothing much came out of the13th FC or the 14th FC. Can the 15th FC undo what the previous two FCs failed to do. That too when the scope has been expanded to include “internal security” too?
While we wait to see what the 15th FC has to say, several imponderables have to be kept in mind. The lack of national security doctrine is one major lacunae. Without a strategic assessment of the security environment and scenario, ad-hocism will continue to rule. For instance, while the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, in the name of two front war scenarios, opted to raise a new mountain strike corp and envisaged recruitment of 90,000 personnel, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government chose a wiser course of cutting down on this mammoth augmentation. However, 35,000 personnel were recruited.
Now, the question is whether ‘two front war’ or ‘two and half front war’ scenarios are actually realistic. And if these are, what is the best way to address this. Does it serve country’s interest to ratchet up conflict with China by joining quadrilateral naval forays in South China Sea (SCS). Because such force projection, together with allies as dubious as the US and its client state Australia in SCS, when China has not interfered with Indian shipping, make no sense. Is not India being foolish in expanding its naval footprint in SCS? And will not naval expansion be undertaken with this ambitious attempt to demonstrate India’s clout riding US coat tails?
This is not to deny that India must maintain vigilance vis-a-vis China because a rising power and a neighbour with which there are unresolved border/boundary issue must know that India has military prowess to dissuade aggression. The point is, what is the best way to upgrade India’s military which is not tied to force projection in tandem with the US. Does India require to expand its naval fleet for force projection in order to assist the US and its allies and client states and realise their strategic goal of cornering China?
The fact that White House on July 31 showered left-handed compliments on India for abiding with the US imperialist sanctions against Iran, does not enhance India’s force projection. What it shows is India’s inability to defend its interests in the Gulf region. So, would India then also get sucked into US containment of China and expensive military build-up? If India values strategic autonomy and independent foreign policy, then can it afford to fall for military aggrandisement that compromises this? Besides, what military wherewithal is selected also depends on the scenario that Indian strategic doctrine visualises. If the security doctrine incorporates security considerations of the US and its allies in its doctrine in the name of inter-operability between military allies/partners, it will lead to one scenario. If this is kept aside, it will configure another scenario. From this follows military requirement.
Another issue is the bloated size of personnel and, therefore, a large part of the revenue and pension budget is a fixed cost. This will not change unless the plans underway result in cutting down the “flab”. Although the Army seeks to reportedly reduce100,000 posts, what is not clear is over what period will this be done and whether this is sufficient. It is worth noting that in 2017-18 and 2018-19, the government reversed the manpower cut it had undertaken and increased its manpower size by recruiting 70,000 tax persons, 45,000 civilian defence staff and 61,000 central para-military (CPMF) force personnel. Thus, if the Army cuts back 100,000 posts but defence civil staff and CPMFs increase by 106,000, then it becomes a charade. In other words, if the Prime Minister so eloquently reminded the armed forces in December 2015 to reduce the “flab”, then how come the very same government felt no hesitation to increase the size of civilian defence and CPMFs? Surely, some of the money meant to meet personnel cost could have been better spent for much needed defence capital requirement? Surely, cutting flab cannot become an empty exercise.
It is not far-fetched to point out that the preference for armed police force, which has kept growing by leaps and bounds, has also meant that civil police needed for law and order has been neglected. As a result, whereas the sanctioned strength of civil police is 24,84,170, their actual strength is 19,41,473 i.e. there is an overall shortfall of 5,42,697 police personnel. This has directly to do with the Centre’s encroachment into states’ jurisdiction by raising the banner of “internal security” which requires paramilitary forces and letting everyday law and order suffer. It is this that is responsible for growth in crimes, such as rape, murder, robbery across the country and obsession with terrorism, which excludes terror unleashed by mob lynchings and cow vigilantes.
Is the government looking at areas where maximum reduction is possible were there to be a change in government’s approach towards inducting Army for internal security? For instance, every time the Army was asked to deploy troops for internal security duty, the argument was that central paramilitary forces were neither sufficient in number nor equipped/trained to handle these challenges. Now that augmentation of both Army and central paramilitary forces has been carried on over the past three decades, what compels the government to continue with deployment of forces for internal security? Especially when such deployment for prolonged periods, decades no less, pits the Indian Army against our own people?
If a strong government cannot move away from a policy which saps energy and scarce resources, then no matter what technical solutions are envisaged by 15th FC, these will fall far short of the desired result. One is not even raising the issue of a democratic political resolution, which would remove the need to deploy the Army for military suppression of our own people. A strong government has the potential to move away from the tried, tested and failed approach, provided it can remove its ideological blinkers, and considers Indian people’s best interest. Of course, the jingoists and bigoted who push for the rhetoric of ‘fight to the finish’ and ‘final solution’ have no qualms if more blood is spilled in the name of solution. But that’s not what a wise government ought to push for. Non-military solutions which frees military resources, human and material, is a better course to try out.
Defence expert Ajai Sahni wrote some time back that “(t)errorism and insurgent threats across India have substantially been contained”. And then added that “where a measure of escalation is being registered, it is abundantly clear that this is the result of intentional destabilisation with a view to achieving short-term, partisan political gains, principally as a result of communal polarisation”.
To return to 15th FC, it is indeed true that the maximum saving can be effected by gradually withdrawing the Army from internal security. Over a period, the wage salary and pension bill will come down too. It is this that will solve, once for all, the problem that has plagued India’s defence forces that are laden with a bloated force and an ever-increasing pension bill, which end up cornering most of the scarce funds. Thus, a combination of a realistic security assessment with reduction of flab by reducing the internal security footprint of the Army may deliver what two previous finance commissions failed to do. If there is political will, then this is doable, which neither non-lapsable funds nor guaranteed annual growth can deliver.