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Attaining Strategic Independence Through Atmanirbharta By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

Ukraine was dependent on others. From having the potential of being a strong and prosperous nation it chose to let its strengths go to seed. Its people are suffering the misery of war since it did not build up its national capabilities or prepare adequately to defend itself. Irrespective of the outcome of this conflict, Ukrainians are going to pay the wages of neglect for a long time to come for not striving for their version of Atmanirbharta.

 

While India is a relatively stronger nation as compared to Ukraine, it is still dependent on others. We are energy dependent. We are not self-sufficient in defense equipment. We are not independent in the technologies which we need to make our nation great. These three factors have come sharply into focus in the current Russo Ukrainian conflict. This has impacted our ability to take a stand and act as per our national interests. We are walking a tightrope between our long-time friendship with Russia and our newfound friendship with USA in an environment where our long-term adversarial relations with Pakistan and China are a constant. Our strategic dependencies on other nations hamper us to do what we must do. The singular lesson of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict for India is that if it must become a power of consequence and be counted in the comity of nations, it must attain strategic independence.  I am more than convinced that the only route to attain strategic independence is through Atmanirbharta.  

 

Atmanirbhata for a nation like India is a very vast concept and spans diverse fields. It is not confined to defence sector or manufacturing or trading. It goes beyond that. At the same time a nation cannot attain Atmanirbharta in all fields. Two years back when the corona virus struck us and the Chinese aggression took place in Eastern Ladakh, I started reflecting on what will make us strategically independent. After a lot of thought, I concluded that there are five areas which we need to focus on – Water, Energy, Defence, Health and Digital India. Accordingly, I wrote an article titled Five Point Framework to Attain Strategic Independence in Oct 2020. Today I went over that article. My reasons and arguments still hold. If we are Atmanirbhar in these fields, we will be strategically independent. I am reproducing the main contents of that article with a few minor amendments. It still makes sense and I hope some one in the value chain gets to see it!   

 

The Concept of Strategic Independence

 

Independences Attained By India. 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 partial ‘Economic Independence’. The halcyon days of globalization brought about great development and growth. Along the way we also attained partial ‘Technological’ independence in key sectors  of Atomic Energy, Space and Missiles. However when it came to providing security, ensuring the unity and integrity of the Nation  as enshrined in the preamble of its Constitution, India has  always had to look over 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,  we are being ‘spoken of’ but not ‘spoken at’ or ‘spoken for’. We are an ‘object’ of international discourse a but not its ‘subject’. When viewed holistically, ‘Strategic Independence’ is, 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 where international institutions are losing their relevance, we need to stand on our feet on our own. 

 

Strength of the Nation. In this overall construct, is India weak as a nation? NO! Is India a strong nation? NOT YET.   We need to build upon our strengths and cement areas of concern, so that 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. Whilst , India has the potential of reaping the demographic dividend of its population, it has to be converted  into a tangible asset. The current population pyramid is likely to rise almost cylindrically. Hence preparing and finding jobs for this mass is an issue by itself. Otherwise the dividend will turn into a major liability. If India must be strategically independent, its population must be in a progressive upward loop. 


 

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. At a very fundamental level, India  needs to have more  water storage capacity– above and below ground levels. 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 generating employment constantly, carrying out sorely needed agriculture reforms, improved national 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, the  World Bank recommendations for Pakistan to get more out of available water are equally applicable to India. The report details out complexity, urgency and scale of impact of key recommendations regarding  water services delivery, water resources management and water-related risk mitigation. If this report is, suitably adopted to India, 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 from stable and diversified sources to mitigate geopolitical risks. 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. It has to be a national mission where every household is involved. 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 fuel cell and  hydrogen technologiesand harnessing space based energy about which I have written earlier and are hyperlinked. 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 where defence budgets will remain stagnant. 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. There is no other choice if we are to be a power of consequence. 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 as 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. The current drive of the Indian government to set up a semiconductor ecology is laudable. However we must leverage other strengths in indigenised processors, start-ups and software capability to develop as a well-rounded digital power. The ability to holistically attempt at progress still eludes us.   

  

Some Pitfalls

 

Quality.  Poor quality is an Indian bugbear. Unless we develop the reputation being able to produce goods of high quality repetitively, we are in the danger of being branded as another China. Quality is matter of national consciousness. 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. 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. I have written on this @ https://www.gunnersshot.com/2021/11/civil-military-fusion-indian-necessity.html. We need to start something akin to China’s Military Civil Fusion even if it is at a reduced scale. 

 

Conclusion

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  the US, the UK, Senegal, Slovenia, and UAE is testimony to Indian capability. If we can do this under hugely 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. 

3 responses to “Attaining Strategic Independence Through Atmanirbharta By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)”

  1. Worth reading n as the writter specified some responsible in country building should act appropriate. Wish our nation should come top of every couties. Thanks

  2. Excellent writeup and detailed analysis with viewpoints.

  3. Good information. I would like your article. Keep share more articles and pass information. Wow this is amazing blog and I am very happy to read your blog. how to help ukraine army

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