Wednesday, April 23, 2008

MPs call for fatter purse for defence

Parliament members today demanded higher salaries for soldiers and a fatter purse for the defence ministry. This was the first time in 10 years that defence grants were discussed in the Lok Sabha. Defence grants were "guillotined" (passed without discussion) in consecutive years.

India's defence allocation crossed the trillion mark (Rs 1,05,600 crore) for the first time this year. Despite the massive sum, however, defence officials were sceptical about the real increase in Chidambaram's budget. The concern was reflected in Parliament.

The BJP's T.P.S. Rawat, a retired lieutenant-general, said the Indian government allocated less to defence as a percentage of GDP than Pakistan and China. Despite the 10 per cent hike in this year's budget, defence allocation has fallen below 2 per cent of the GDP for the first time. Rawat said the air force and the navy were not able to keep force level to the authorised limit.

He also demanded an advanced air defence system for the army, full squadron strength for the air force and at least 140 warships for the navy. Without these force-levels, India's military risked its credible deterrence capability.

Rawat, the CPM's Rupchand Pal and the Samajwadi Party's Mohan Singh also asked the government to address concerns that the Sixth Pay Commission had not given the armed forces the salaries they wanted. They wanted the government to give soldiers more than what the Sixth Pay Commission had recommended.

This issue has already been taken up by the Prime Minister. Speaking to civil services officers yesterday, Manmohan Singh had said he favoured increasing the salaries of military personnel.

Rupchand Pal said the government should take steps to check the brain drain from the Defence Research and Development Organisation, whose scientists were finding offers abroad and from the corporate sector more lucrative. A similar trend is also evident in the armed forces. There are 11,000 officer vacancies in the army currently.

Pal said a decision to allow 49 per cent foreign direct investment in defence production could be counter-productive. A parliamentary standing committee had counselled against opening the sector to FDI. He also warned against alleged pressure from American companies to soften the defence acquisitions policy in favour of them.

The Bahujan Samaj Party's Ilyas Azmi said that about 10 per cent of the soldiers killed in the 1999 Kargil war were Muslim. He urged the government to increase the intake of minorities in the armed forces.

Military pact

In his hour-long reply to the debate, defence minister A.K. Antony said India "will not enter into any military alliance with any country". However, it would not tone down or give up its growing engagements with countries like the US and Russia as these were aimed at increasing the capabilities of the Indian armed forces, he added.

"We are following an independent foreign policy," Antony said.

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