There has been much discussion on television channels, and more in the print media, on various aspects of the budget. But there has been little and in fact, no discussion on the defence budget. Absence of this one issue in our debates, that impacts national security, does highlight the low priority accorded to national security in the Indian setting.

Before taking up the details and consequences of extremely low allocation for defence, it may be worthwhile to look into two aspects that impinge on defence budget. The first being the security scene and the second the state of India’s defence forces.

China does not appear willing to settle the border dispute with India and continues to claim Arunachal Pradesh. It is also keeping the border alive by periodically breaching the LAC. Its military capabilities are many times more than that of India.

It is in the process of Building China –Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which runs through PoK, further complicating the issues related to this state. It has also been busy setting up what it calls a, ‘string of pearls,’ which in effect is an attempt to strangulate India. China has gained considerable influence in Nepal, Bangla Desh, Burma, Sri Lanka, and Maldives.

China has upped its military infrastructure in Tibet, set up naval bases in Mayanmar ( Coco Islands to monitor ship movement in Bay of Bengal ) Bangla Desh, Gwadar, Djoubuti on the African coast, Aden and is planning on a large military base near Gwadar. It has also established trade relationship with Maldives and acquired some parts of the archipelago. China has been upgrading Pakistan’s military capabilities and is using that country to tie down India locally. All these developments do not augur well for India.

China has made great progress in the field of cyber warfare, advance weapon technologies and weapon production, has the fastest super computer, (Sunway Tailu –light,) J-31 fifth generation stealth- jet fighter. It has developed an electromagnet aircraft-catapult for its new aircraft-carriers and a gun on the same electromagnet system. It has also made great strides in robotics, artificial–intelligence and drones.

China’s One Road One Belt concept ( both over land and sea ) going right upto Europe and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor are essentially moves, akin to the ‘Gun Boat Diplomacy’ practiced by European countries during the seventeen and eighteen centuries to promote trade and capture markets and eventually colonize some of these.

At the other end Pakistan keeps pushing terrorists across the LoC in J and K and even across the IB. Equally it is keeping alive these borders through artillery shelling and use of small arms. It continues to promote terrorism, radicalization of youth and stone pelting in the Kashmir valley.

Therefore, for India the security scene is rather grim. Country imports nearly seventy percent of defence equipment. The deficiencies in military wherewithal are indeed appalling. The Indian Air Force is not only short of a number of squadrons, but a large fleet of fighter aircrafts is overdue for replacement. Indian Navy is low on its naval fleet, especially taking into account Chinese forays into the Indian Occasion Region.

It is the deficiencies and absence of modernization of the Indian army that need to set the nation worrying. Night fighting capability is low, no updating of artillery has taken place for nearly three decades, infantry is without suitable small arms, bulletproof jacket and headgear, appropriate winter clothing and even proper footware.

Air defence capability is equally low. Deficiencies in reserves of ammunition and other warlike stores are indeed alarming. So overall the state of Indian defence forces is rather dismal and an area of much concern.

Earlier the pension bill of defence personnel ( that includes defence civilians, whose share is almost 30 percent which, has further gone up due to grant of NFFU ) did not form part of the defence budget, but now it does. Consequently the defence budget for 2018-19 is 2.16 percent of GDP, but when the pension bill is taken out, it works to 1.58 percent ( Rs 295,511 crores ) .

Though in real terms it is 5 percent higher than the allocation for financial year 1916-17, but as ration to GDP it is lowest since 1962. However this 5 percent increase from 1917-18 budget is misleading because the inflation in prices of defence equipment is generally 8 to 10 percent every year.

The defence budget covers two areas, revenue expenditure and capital expenditure. The former relates to pay, allowances, etc and latter to modernization and purchase of military equipment and infrastructure.

Presently in the allocation for defence, the revenue component is Rs 1,95,947 crores and that of capital expenditure Rs 99,564 crores. Over the years and as a regular practice eight to ten thousand crores used to be surrendered from the capital expenditure to consolidated fund. This seems to have been stopped once it was pointed out that this had been an unholy arrangement, in fact a conspiracy between the MoD and MoF.

Undoubtedly there are competing demands, on the national budget. Given the state of the nation, grinding poverty, farmer’s distress, poor state of education, healthcare and infrastructure and a range of other areas, there was little scope to allocate more funds to defence, where even the bare minimum requirement is indeed substantial. Though there is enormous scope to reduce government as such and usher in better governance, but this has remained only a talking point. On the other hand there isa proposal to add one more ministry i.e. ministry of internal security!

Therefore, there is a need to critically examine as to where all revenue expenditure can be curtailed and elsewhere funds generated and deployed for capital expenditure. One, is to cut down on manpower and the other, is disinvestment of most of the defence PSUs, Ordinance Factories and DRDO establishments.

From time to time military has constituted committees to prune down the manpower in administrative support elements ( also called tail ) and eliminate other connected expenditure within the army. What has never been looked at are the imperatives of pruning down the civilian component of manpower paid out of the defence budget, whose strength is nearly three and half lakhs. This is the real tail!

While large scale pruning of the civilian component is necessary and as such must not be delayed any more, further saving in manpower and staff is possible by integrating defence services headquarters with the Ministry of Defence and bringing in the CDS system in it full spectrum, i,e, theater commands.

There are large number defence PSUs, Ordinance factories which have outlived their utility and are overdue for disinvestment. What most of these produce can be obtained from the market at much less cost and of better quality. Large amount of funds can be generated, by disinvesting most of these factories and defence PSUs.

Then there are these over four dozen DRDO establishments, where most have outlived their utility. These have been in existence for six decades and yet have done nothing worthwhile to justify their existence. Even capability and skill at reverse engineering has eluded them. Those manning some of these establishments have spent their time and effort at inventing the wheel. Most of these DRDO establishments, which are equipped with the state of the art facilities, when passed on to private sector will be able to deliver the right equipment.

If there has been no move, so far, to dis-invest some of these factories and establishment, the underlying reason lies in the privileges and gains accruing from these to the politico-bureaucratic handlers.

While these establishments in the hands of private sector will perform much better, but more importantly funds generated from these dis-investments can be deployed to equip the military through imports so as to meet defence services immediate and urgent demands.

There are perhaps intelligence inputs to the government that there is going to be no conflict with either of the adversaries, but then these very inputs were fed to Jawaharlal Nehru, by the then intelligence czar, Mr Malik. Then 1962 happened. Soon after that the 1965 war with Pakistan took place and this too without any warning. Kargil too came about without any timely intelligence inputs or warning.

While policies can change in matters of weeks and days, military capabilities take years to build.