Nations have the choice to respond to threats with a short-term tactical or a long-term strategic perspective. Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive and a sound approach lies in an optimal mix. However, developing countries such as ours need resources far more in areas of energy, food and water security and despite best intentions, conventional external and internal security often take a back seat. While tactically we can and must implement specific security projects, our strategic thinking cannot be limited to holding two ministries accountable for India’s external and internal security.
A nation’s need for security is not just confined to its territorial sovereignty. Matter of fact, most flashpoints of conflicts such as the blockade of the Suez Canal or overproduction of oil by Kuwait had nothing to do with territorial conflicts. The US retains its world dominance more by holding sway over the trade routes on the high seas, than it does by stationing troops overseas. Economic sovereignty is as important to national security as territorial sovereignty.
By the same analogy, enhancement of the national security posture pre-requisites a focus on improving economic security. Developing nations, therefore, must use building blocks of economic security in a manner that also improves national security, reducing the need to embark on separate standalone, resource-consuming initiatives. Here are some examples of such opportunities.
Since its announcement in 2006, the unified goods and services tax (GST) has missed two deadlines due to reasons beyond the scope of this discussion. In short, GST envisages doing away with multiple levels of taxation to leverage efficiencies in logistics and investments in warehousing and allied infrastructure. The introduction of GST has such powerful potential that it can add a percentage point to India’s gross domestic product!
However, apart from its obvious financial benefits, GST will bring a single unified national goods tracking system, giving visibility of consignments, allowing security officials to better discern outlier behaviour such as movement of narcotics, contraband, human trafficking and a wide array of illegal activities that is possible today—because of the fragmented nature of logistics in India. GST will reduce waiting time for trucks at state border checkposts, thus diminishing opportunities for pilferage, sabotage, adulteration and corruption. Security agencies will have the ability to speedily track down the origin and routing of equipment such as mobile phones, computers or explosives used in illegal activities by querying GST. Trucks can be “sealed” at the point of origin with no need to open and examine the contents (from a tax perspective) at each transit point. All of this will also free up vast infrastructure that is currently necessary to monitor piecemeal taxation—and focus it on security.
GST will also aid during natural disasters and crises by allowing the free and unrestricted movement of essential equipment, food and transportation to locations in dire straits. In the past, trucks have waited for hours at checkposts while people were in desperate need of food, water and medical supplies just a few kilometres away.
Another example is India’s pressing requirement of maritime security. The 26/11 Mumbai attacks highlighted the need to secure and monitor the coast, but massive resources are required to guard the 7,000km-long zone. However, there is a way to hitch a ride on the back of the reforms in maritime policies. Coastal security will improve dramatically because of the sheer increase in maritime traffic along the coast if the reforms are implemented. Paradoxically, despite a multitude of advantages, maritime transportation has remained a neglected area in India. Only 7% of cargo in India is carried on marine routes compared with 16% in the US and 46% in the European Union. Despite the fact that maritime transportation is six times cheaper, has a far smaller carbon footprint and the ancillary benefits of reducing congestion, pollution and road fatalities, investments in coastal shipping infrastructure is less than a fraction of the spending on roads, rail and airports.
Like GST, development of maritime corridors will have several collateral benefits for coastal security. For one, escalation in traffic along the coast will defray the cost of patrolling and monitoring the zone. With an increased number of vessels plying along the coast, surveillance, early warning and quick response to emergencies will be much easier as commercial ships are equipped with state-of-the-art radar and communications equipment that security forces will be able to piggyback on, to transmit and receive alerts and advisories. The maritime corridors will also result in the proliferation of ports, jetties and other infrastructure along the coast, creating a lattice of ancillary vessels, establishing a stronger coastal defence system. As coastal economies improve, there will be better communications along the shoreline, which will make it easier to detect and track hostile vessels and reduce the chances of infiltration and smuggling.
In a complex world, security threats themselves are often manifestations of deep festering and interconnected issues. While security forces can be tasked to confront the manifestations and establish an environment of immediate control— strategic thinking lies in leveraging all nation-building projects to create an interlace of security grids that work in symbiotic conjunction. But to do that, we must look beyond parochial interests and heed the words of Benjamin Franklin—that we must indeed all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.
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