By Maj Gen Ashok Kumar, VSM (Retd)
The budget for the financial year 23-24 was unveiled on 01 Feb 2023 with much fanfare wherein the government increased the capital spending by 33% to 10 trillion rupees (10 Lakh crore rupees) as compared to financial year 22-23. One will not go into the details as to whether BE of previous year should be taken as a benchmark for comparison of the announced next budget or RE of the previous year should be a reference point for the comparison. Invariably, there are substantial changes at RE stage as compared to BE stage allocations which is not a good financial practice. While there will always be some changes based on the expenditure profile of the allottees as well as insertion of those factors which cannot be fully visualized but these should be just limited to that. Since RE allocations come fairly at a late stage in the financial year, neither it facilitates its effective use nor ensures that the output and responsibilities of the recipient have been optimally factored.
The union budget is being seen by different stakeholders based on their individual perspective/the organization to which they belong and such an approach will continue to prevail to visualize this budget of ‘Amrit Kaal’ from the national security perspective especially when China and Pakistan are working in open collusivity against our national interest. Not only this, while Pakistan has still retained POK since 05 Jan 1949 when ceasefire was agreed to halt 1947-48 Kashmir war and also it has ceded Saksgam valley of POK to China in 1963, China has transgressed at multiple locations across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh since Apr-May 2020. The continuing stand off is closing towards the third anniversary in a month’s time. The standoff between India and China has also resulted in additional mobilization of troops in the depth areas in addition to frantic pace of infrastructure development on both sides. The terrain and early planning facilitated China in creating favourable infrastructure development in border areas all along the Chinese border. Now ,India has also started giving major infrastructure push in the border areas. Besides laying out a network of roads for axial as well as lateral connectivities, all weather roads are also being developed by creating world class tunnels which will not only change the way we fight but will also change the lives of millions of people living in the border areas.
In the current standoff with China, there was a more enhanced need of budgetary support for the defense forces. What is most intriguing is that ‘seven issues’ highlighted in this budget do not explain why national security is not being given the requisite focus it deserves and it has not been included in these seven priorities. China continues to increase its footsteps to enlarge direct as well as indirect confrontation with India and an open acceptance of this phenomenon is essential as only then the initiation of necessary measures is possible. The defence forces have been demanding a new budgetary allocation system wherein the money not spent in a financial year can be utilized in subsequent years. This need for a ‘non lapsable’ budget has not seen the light of the day despite positive recommendations from multiple quarters and it did not happen even this year. Not only this, there is negligible increase in the budget allocation once the RE allocation of FY 22-23 is compared with current years budget allocation unveiled on 01 Feb 23.
While there could be a lot more argument as to what all was needed to address our national security concerns, there is one major silver lining in the defence budget which needs to be highlighted and appreciated. The capital budget of BRO has increased from Rs 2500 crore to Rs 5000 crore in just over two years. In fact there is a 43% increase in BRO capital budget this year as compared to FY 22-23 allocations. The increased allocation at BE stage is a financially prudent decision as it permits viable and optimal use of the allocated budget and more can be done with lesser amounts. The credit goes to both- to the BRO wherein the current DGBR with his team has made major positive contribution to the infrastructure development in the border areas adopting the best practices and technology, the credit also goes to the government of the day to recognise the need of border infrastructure and allocate the budget abinitio. This synergistic approach between the BRO and the Government will yield better results than have been experienced in the past.
Large number of projects are sanctioned in the different departments but our processes and lack of ability to execute these projects timely result in large cost overruns to multiple lakh crores year on year. The current budget allocation to BRO ab initio will help to arrest this trend and will set a precedent for other departments to emulate.
The Government and the defence forces will do well to identify the critical infrastructure gap in the border areas and empower BRO further to take ahead this national mission. Given the performance jump in BRO outputs in the projects, they may be even in a condition to develop border infrastructure even beyond 5000 cr in FY 23-24. If that be the case, additional allocation will be a fit case to be examined and may be included once the budget comes for the discussion. Early and timely completion of infrastructure projects will not only address the national security needs but will reduce cost of multiple projects which can be the silver lining of this year’s defence budget that is certain to address our border infrastructure needs.
Author is a Kargil war veteran and defence analyst. He is a visiting fellow of CLAWS and specialises in neighbouring countries with special focus on China. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets from @chanakyaoracle.
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