Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Siachen, Adarsh, patriotism and security
I've got lots of negative feedback for the Yahoo! column in which I suggested that military bases should gradually move out of big cities. The military is treated like a holy cow in India, and this results in tabooing logic in favour of national pride (some comments to my previous post use sound rational arguments, but many that I have junked simply question my patriotism).
The conflict at the Siachen glacier is a good example of how patriotic thinking works. Thousands of Indian soldiers are posted in rotation on the highest battlefield in the world. They are there because of a botched preemptive strike the Indian army initiated back in 1984, resulting in a standoff in an uninhabitable zone of no strategic value. The cost in human lives as well as budgetary outlay has been staggering. Some 2000 Indian soldiers died in the first 13 years of the stalemate, there are no figures of how many more have perished in the 13 years since, but a total figure of around 3000 is probably accurate. Most of these deaths are due to harsh conditions, in which temperatures regularly dip to -60 degrees C. And yet there is no will to solve the Siachen issue through dialogue, no public pressure to bring these soldiers back. Far from suggesting a solution needs to be found, we celebrate the army's sacrifices in film, song and advertising.
Consider, now, the issue of the Adarsh Housing society. Let's assume that everything was done according to the book, and the flats were given over to war veterans and Kargil widows. These apartments are worth some 80 million rupees each, nearly 2 million dollars. They are sold at 10 percent of their market value to people living on a monthly income of some 20,000 rupees, or 500 dollars. The fact is that, in ordinary circumstances, these veterans and widows would not be able to afford even the 80 lakhs they are charged. They buy the homes because they're great investments. As soon as they can, they sell the flats to civilians and buy themselves comfortable homes in the north of the city which cost half the market price of the Adarsh flats. They are left with some 30 million to put in fixed deposits at 10% interest, giving them 3 million rupees a year to live off, ten times what they are getting by way of pensions. These are back of the envelope calculations, but this sort of thing has played out in every housing scheme where defence personnel have been granted housing at subsidised rates. Within a few years, these complexes come to be occupied by civvies.
Now, I'm not questioning whether or not these particular veterans and widows deserve the largesse. Let's presume they do. The fact remains that Adarsh would have housed civilians through sub-letting or direct sale within a few years of the keys of flats being handed over. The security risk the Navy is protesting about, in other words, exists independent of the corruption scandal. That' an example of the pressure a city like Bombay places on the military.
The idea that I'm asking the armed forces to make sacrifices in favour of a builders' lobby is entirely wrong. My argument is that it might be beneficial even from the military's perspective to gradually vacate land in densely populated cities like Bombay, Poona and Bangalore. The military's presence spurs urban development upto a point, then becomes a neutral factor, before eventually turning into a net impediment. It is equally true that urban development helps the military upto a point by providing necessary services, but eventually becomes an impediment to optimal functioning.
Cities grew as hubs of manufacturing, but many of the largest metropolises now host few working factories. Armies first flourished in forts, but now have no need for such structures. The Indian army recently moved out of Delhi fort, and I hope they will soon do the same in Agra fort, enhancing the city's heritage tourism potential. All I'm suggesting is that a similar flexibility be shown in considering the future of camps in metropolises. Better to draft a twenty year plan now than to have a decision forced on you twenty years down the line.