Defence spending in Pakistan seems to operate on its own momentum. Yearly budget increases are taken as a given and there is very little debate on the utility of acquiring more weaponry. Certainly, defending against external threats is a vital function of a government but so — as Indian rural development minister Jairam Ramesh reminded us — is providing basic services to the common man. In a speech launching eco-toilets that use the biodigester technology first employed by the Indian military, Ramesh said that there is very little point in constantly launching new Agni missiles if the government cannot even provide basic sanitation services like toilets for its citizens. The minister also called on the government to increase the budget of his department so that it matched what is spent on defence.
The distinction Ramesh drew on the differing priorities accorded to defence and development spending is a very real one. Nothing has done as much to hold back the economies of India and Pakistan as much as our decisions to prioritise military spending at the cost of everything else. For as much as ‘India Shining’ has become a slogan to glorify the new, economically-strong India, the county is still struggling to reduce poverty, particularly in rural areas. The green toilet initiative is one that needs to be replicated and expanded even if that means giving up a missile or two. All the shiny weapons in the world will be for naught if the citizens of a country do not have access to basic needs like food and shelter.
Ramesh’s statement should also serve as a guiding light for policymakers in Pakistan. Over the last few months, we have gone on a missile-testing spree, with over half-a-dozen missiles being tested. No one has been able to explain exactly why we need so many missiles at a time when rampant inflation has put basic goods and services, never mind sanitation, beyond the reach of much of the population. Ramesh, along with like-minded people across the border, needs to make the provision of such necessities a priority that transcends the traditional enmity of the two countries. He could start by proposing to share the technology that made his pet project of green toilets a reality. This would not only put the focus back on development, it would also open new avenues of cooperation between India and Pakistan.
Published In The Express Tribune, June 26th, 2012.
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