I wrote this article in 2020. As time has passed, I am now more than ever convinced that we need to attain strategic independence as we grow as a nation. That is why I had this discussion with Mr Sree Iyer of P Gurus last year. Our discussion in on the clip below. It is in the form of a slide presentation cum discussion. The article is also below for those who do prefer reading.
Never let a good crisis go to waste
2020 has been eventful– the Chinese virus, border clash with China, deteriorating neighbourhood environment and an economy in doldrums. Four down for nothing in typical 20-20 match fashion. India is pulling it back through emergency arms imports, experienced armed forces, and diplomatic outreach. It wants to turn around the situation through the PMs clarion call of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ to achieve ‘Strategic Independence’ and emerge as a power. The term ‘Strategic Independence’ is often being used these days without understanding its implications. It is important to understand what it means and how to achieve it.
The Concept of Strategic Independence
Independences Attained. The freedom struggle bestowed India with ‘Political’ Independence in 1947. The Green Revolution and Operation Flood gave India ‘food security’ and Independence from ‘Famine and Hunger’. Liberalisation and reforms of early 90’s led us into ‘Economic Independence’ . The halcyon days of globalization brought about great development and growth. Along the way we attained partial ‘Technological’ independence in key sectors of Atomic Energy, Space and Missiles.
However when it came to providing security and ensuring the unity and integrity of the Nation as enshrined in the preamble of our Constitution, India has always had to look over our it’s shoulders.
Strategic Independence. Consider this. In the best interests of the nation (a) we could never take independent actions (b) never could agree or disagree with other powers as it suited our interests (c) we could not set our own rules despite best efforts (d) we have never had the ability to use military force autonomously. Simply put. We lacked ‘Strategic Independence’ to do what was necessary for the nation. In the larger international context it means that you can be ‘spoken of’ but not ‘spoken at’ or ‘spoken for’. You could be the ‘object’ of a discussion but not its ‘subject’. ‘Strategic Independence’ is, therefore, dependent on a host of internal and external factors. At the same, it does not mean that we need to be fully self-sufficient. That’s impossible. It is also not being isolated. It means that we should be strong in core and fundamental issues. We should have the ability to trade barter and negotiate on our terms where needed. As the world enters an era of nationalist protectionism, international institutions are losing their relevance. We need to stand on our feet. We need to have the internal and external strength to live hereafter in an adversarial environment of a toxic Pakistan and a predatory China.
Strength of the Nation. In this overall construct, is India weak as a nation? NO! Is India a strong nation? Yes in many aspects and ‘NO’ in some crucial issues. Leaving contentious issues of politics, sociology, culture, ethnicity, religion el al out, we need to build upon our strengths in those areas of common concern, to take us to a level where the ‘NO’ part is marginalised. When that happens we would be strategically independent. In doing so, we must focus on certain areas and not get diffused by attempting too much. In this context the identified areas are health, water, energy, data and defence. Why these? These areas are those where we have tremendous strengths. Equally these areas are those we have phenomenal weaknesses. Self-sufficiency in these areas will primarily kick start areas of growth and employment which we sorely need and thence lead to Strategic Independence.
Population. The basic denominator in any Indian equation is its population. Our population is set to grow to 1.6 billion by 2050. The current population pyramid is likely to rise almost cylindrically. Hence finding jobs for this mass is an issue by itself. Currently the rural: urban ratio is 2:1. Increased urbanisation will push it nearer to 1:1. This should not be lost sight of in any aspect of consideration.
Five Point Framework
Water. India is a water stressed nation (water availability below 1500 m³per capita). It ranks 13th for overall water stress and has more than three times the population of the other 17 extremely highly stressed countries combined. Large swathes of India face water scarcity (below 1000 m³ per capita). Major cities are in absolute water scarce situations (below 800 m³per capita). We suffer extensively from water borne diseases due to groundwater contamination and river/waterbody pollution. A major water crisis is looming as per most estimates. If manufacturing is to relocate to India and growth continues, we need more water. We have enough water in the Himalayas and get enough water through the monsoons. However we do not manage it well. We need to have more water storage capacity– above and below ground. We have storage capacity between 120-220 days. USA has 900 days, South Africa has 500 days and ,China has 250 days storage capacity. We must increase our storage. We also need to have a multi mission mode plan to encompass (a) river water linking (b) river and water body cleaning (c) conservation and regeneration schemes of floodplains, lakes and groundwater recharge areas (d) rainwater harvesting (e) focus on more efficient and sustained irrigation (f) pollution and contamination prevention measures. Addressing water problems at a strategic level has huge payoffs in employment, agriculture, health and almost aspect of our life. Water sufficiency will be our lifeline. It needs life defining reform. We have to rise above political partisanship to achieve strategic independence. Very interestingly, World Bank recommendations for Pakistan to get more out of available water are equally applicable to India. The graphic below very clearly indicates the complexity, urgency and scale of impact of key recommendations in relation to water services delivery, water resources management and water-related risk mitigation. If this simple but effective graphic, suitably adopted to India, is put into operation we will be on our way to Strategic Independence.
Energy. ‘Make in India’, ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, relocating industry decoupling from China, industrialisation and development portend an economy that is likely to grow fivefold. A developing population of 1.6 billion will consume energy more than twice of today. Energy security becomes pivotal for strategic independence. The graphics of demand of electricity by sector, power generation by source, and India’s energy mix tell a story of the challenge ahead. We need to make moves to secure long term availability of oil. While our energy dependence on fossil fuels will endure, we need to move away from them, otherwise pollution will kill us. The key is to increase renewables and go nuclear. Both demand an intensive research and high technology approach. Increasing scale and cost effectiveness of indigenous renewables is a key result area. The need to tap solar energy which is abundant in India is paramount. A very important element of our energy mix must be Thorium. Thorium reactors are safe. Beaches in Kerala are full of Thorium. India is the lead researcher of Thorium. We have an experimental reactor going. Can we hasten the cycle? In future, we must invest in hydrogen technologies and harnessing space based energy. That means our space program (which incidentally is on the right track) has to be fully supported. The tripping to Moon and Mars through the Chandrayan and Mangalyan programs is all about space based energy. We will be in pole position of energy if a balanced and holistic approach is adopted.
Defence. Defence is the most complex and critical of sectors to achieve strategic independence. India’s role in world affairs is expanding. Its weight will increase only if it can indigenize defence, reduce imports to become truly ‘Atmanirbhar’. Modernisation of defence and building a defence industrial complex is the key to reviving our economy – reduction of imports, employment generation , capacity utilisation and export possibility. This has been the international experience. The current Sino Indian situation will indicate the way forward in rebalancing of forces, restructuring, increasing jointness and optimising force levels. Concurrently we need to ingest modern disruptive technologies to fight the multi domain wars of the future. All this will have to be done amidst an economic squeeze for at least 5 years. If we must achieve strategic independence the defence forces have to be more integrated and central to the idea of modernisation and acquisition. The politico-military understanding and connect has to be direct. India’s bureaucratic controlled process-oriented procurement is simply outdated. It needs a drastic overhaul along with the OFB and DPSUs. Civil-military fusion in cyberspace, AI, telecom, space, nuclear, ISR, and robotics must be kickstarted. Our situation demands extraordinary responses. Our success stories in Navy, Artillery, Air Defence and Strategic systems need to be built upon. We must imbibe lessons from the space and atomic energy programs. The ‘Ideal’ will never happen. Hence a prioritized strategy based on threats, affordability, availability, alternate means, technology trendline, alliances, jointness and operational concepts is mandatory. Import Substitution, Reverse Engineering, Upgrading, and Innovation are part of the deal.
Health. Health is a low hanging and easily attainable fruit of strategic independence. The current situation has brought forth the strengths of the health sector. We are a pharma and medical products production power house. The quantity and quality of Indian Doctors and Healthcare professionals is astounding. Our medical services already have an international foot print. All it needs is focus to synergise our potential and buttress it with a few of our deficiencies. We must re-establish the API production system for gaining independence from China. There is also a need to establish a medical technology mission to produce hi and low tech medical equipment. We need to leverage the expertise of Indian medical staff abroad to kickstart this process. There is tremendous scope for boosting medical tourism which is already thriving. Overall the scope to develop an indigenous healthcare network based on research, production, diagnostics and services is huge. The employment and export potential of this sector is humungous. We have the knowledge. Focused leveraging is required.
Digital India. The PM says data is the new gold and he talks of digital India. Why are we not using data and digitisation like gold? As a nation we are letting it to seed. As a people we have not been conscious of its strategic importance. We need to leverage data and information with cyber technology, machine learning, AI, Robotics, IOT, 3d printing, augmented/virtual reality, sensor and other disruptive technologies to become a knowledge-based society. We have potential beyond imagination to do so. The opportunity is knocking at our door step and we send our children abroad to do things for other countries! We need to embrace both the hardware and software parts of the digital economy. We must have a start-up eco system to drive data and digitisation. We must make investment friendly policies for growth in this sector. The day we get a handle on information, data and digitisation we will be a world power. To reiterate that data driven solutions are the future is being an oxymoron. Indian digital economy is the lowest hanging fruit if it is well leveraged.
Quality. Poor quality remains an Indian bugbear. To cite an example. Our IFB dishwasher was not cleaning dishes well. The technician who came to inspect the dishwasher said the machine was Ok but the dishwasher soap being provided was of poor quality. It was recently indigenised as a substitute for the Chinese one. I suppose IFB got afflicted by the OFB effect! There is no substitute to quality. Otherwise the whole effort will be a cropper.
Pollution. Attaining strategic independence will imply greater degree of industrialization . In turn it means a high degree of pollution and environmental degradation. We need to be cognizant of this and take balanced steps to ensure pollution is within limits without impeding progress. To cite an example- closure of the Sterlite Copper Plant at Tuticorin converted India from an exporter into an importer of Copper. From China, where else? The plant was closed due to pollution concerns. However the real issue was political and ideological differences. China benefitted. India lost in every respect. Indian history of Jaichands and Mir Jafers is well known and repeats itself in countless Sterlite like stories. Our political class should be cognisant of it. A political party’s gain cannot be India’s loss.
MCF and Dual Use Systems. India is a compartmentalised society and this is reflected in the governments also. We do not have a concept of Military Civil Fusion and dual use of technologies. Great nations develop through Military Civil Fusion. We have stagnated and even regressed on this score. Governments and ministries need to function together and not apart from each other.
Reinforce Success and Not Failure. In many cases we continue to make effort and keep reinforcing failure citing the Robert Bruce example of try, try and try again. There is a dire requirement to shift this thinking to reinforcing success, whether it is indigenous or from abroad. We need to be cognisant of home grown solutions and adapting to home conditions.
The time has arrived for India to attain ‘Strategic Independence’. When it does so , it will be a power to reckon with. It has the capability to do so. The successful development of an indigenous supply chain of high-quality Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits in mere 60 days and further going on to exporting 23,00,000 personal protection equipment (PPE) in Jul to the US, the UK, Senegal, Slovenia, and UAE is testimony to Indian capability. If we can do this under such adverse conditions we can do much more with a plan. We have to get our act together. There could be variations to my ideas. That is fine. There could be many more pitfalls. We need to circumvent them. We just need to have the determination to succeed for a better tomorrow for the next generation.