From China-Pak threat to gender equality, Nirmala Sitharaman’s plate is full of challenges

From China-Pak threat to gender equality, Nirmala Sitharaman's plate is full of challenges
From China-Pak threat to gender equality, Nirmala Sitharaman’s plate is full of challenges

From a collusive China-Pakistan threat to critical operational gaps in India’s military capabilities, from a poor indigenous defence production sector to lack of higher defence management reforms, Nirmala Sitharaman will have to tackle them all.

As the country’s first full-time woman “Raksha Mantri” in the overwhelmingly male-dominated environs of the armed forces, all eyes will also be on her, specially regarding the issue of gender equality, which continues to languish as a mere lip-service in military ranks.

Though women officers have now begun to get permanent commission after long legal battles, they still constitute a miniscule minority. Overall, there are just about 3,500 women among the 62,000 officers in the almost 14-lakh strong armed forces.
Women, of course, are also not allowed to serve on board sea-faring warships, or join the infantry, artillery and armoured corps. The military brass still rules out combat roles for women due to “operational, practical and cultural problems”, though a small beginning has been made with three women now undergoing training on fighter jets after getting commissioned last year.
The low-profile but diligent Sitharaman, who will take over as the new defence minister after Arun Jaitley returns from Japan on Wednesday, will have to contend with entrenched mindsets in all this. She will, of course, have bigger challenges to face in the gigantic defence ministry, where civilian bureaucrats, defence scientists and military officers often pull in different directions with little long-term strategic planning to systematically build military capabilities.
Then, there is the DRDO and its 50 labs, Ordnance Factory Board and its 41 factories, five defence PSUs and four shipyards, whose shoddy performances over the years has kept India in the strategically-vulnerable position of being the world’s biggest arms importer.
Similarly, while a few steps have been taken to boost the private sector’s role in defence production, with the “strategic partnership” and other policies, no major “Make in India” project is yet to actually take off the ground.
The defence production sector also continues to miserably flop in attracting FDI, getting just a measly $ 5.12 million in the last 17 years. The story has remained the same in the last three years with the FDI inflow being only $1 million, despite the much-touted “Make in India” policy.
Sitharaman’s stint in the commerce ministry will decidedly be an advantage in all this. But as the junior-most member of the Cabinet Committee on Security, unlike her heavy-weight predecessors like Pranab Mukherjee, A K Antony, Arun Jaitley and Manohar Parrikar, she will have to punch way beyond her weight to push things through.
The Rs 2.74-lakh-crore defence outlay this fiscal, for instance, works out to just 1.56% of the projected GDP, the lowest such figure since the 1962 war with China. The armed forces want at least 2% — if not 2.5% — for requisite deterrence against China and Pakistan. They have already projected a requirement of Rs 26.84 lakh crore ($416 billion) over the next five years under the 13th Defence Plan (2017-2022), as was first reported by TOI.
There is also the entire question of desperately-needed reforms in the country’s higher defence management, ranging from creation of the pivotal post of a tri-Service chief or chief of defence staff to the setting up of integrated theatre commands in the long run.
But for starters, Sitharaman can get cracking on setting up tri-Service organizations or agencies — as an interim measure till full-fledged commands can come up — to handle the emerging triad of space, cyberspace and special operations. Much of the groundwork for them has already been done.
Another reform on the table is setting up of the specialized defence procurement organization to streamline big-ticket defence acquisitions, execution of offsets, strategic partnerships and production to build a strong defence-industrial base.