The proposed budget for FY2015–2016 is little over Tk2,95,000 crore, equivalent to nearly US$38 billion. This represents about a 29 percent rise in expenditure over the last year. The defence expenditure accounts for Tk.18,383 crore, i.e. US$ 2.35 billion which is 6.15 percent of the national budget. Defence budget showed nearly 10 percent rise over the current year's revised budget of nearly US$2 billion. The Finance Minister in his pre- budget press briefing admitted that the defence budget will sail through the parliament without much debate or discussion as it had in the past.
Debates and discussions on the national budget have been going on in the media for months. Various trade and professional bodies, pressure groups and civil society organisations are putting forward their suggestions on what should be the budget priorities and what fiscal measures government needs to take to accelerate the pace of development. However, there is virtually no discussion on defence spending.
The rise in defence expenditure is taking place in Bangladesh at a time when the government is finding it difficult to meet its commitment for development projects. The development budget compared to revenue budget has been going down in Bangladesh over the last two decades. In fact, after meeting the government's administrative and recurring revenue expenditures, there are relatively less resources left to meet the development activities. This compelled the government to scale down the forecasted growth in 2015-16 to 7 percent from last year's projected growth rate of 7.3 percent (actually achieved 6.51 percent). There was reduced resource allocation to vital sectors such as health that got 4.3 percent of the GDP compared to last year's allocation of 4.8 percent. We continue to spend less in education -- 1.7 percent of GDP, compared to 3.8 percent in India and 2.2 percent in Pakistan. Against this backdrop, can a US$2.35 billion defence budget be justified?
The primary mission of the defence forces is to safeguard the national sovereignty and territorial integrity from external aggression and internal subversion. The secondary missions include assisting in case of large-scale political disturbance or violence, coordinating disaster management, counter terrorist operations, operations against drugs and arms smuggling, what is termed in military jargon as “aid to civil power”.
One of the tasks of the Bangladesh military has been to provide support to the UN in its peace-keeping and peace-enforcement missions. In these tasks, Bangladesh forces deploy globally and operate in diverse climatic zones, in a multi-cultural environment and often under extremely hostile conditions. UN missions are important because the armed forces so deployed act as our goodwill ambassadors and enhance the image of the country. Therefore, the need for a standing military cannot be denied.
It is also the duty of the government to provide a secure environment where citizens can live in peace and harmony and pursue their chosen way of life; this is termed as National Security which includes security not only from external aggression but also from hunger, disease, violence and internal chaos. Defence forces are important components in the national security team. In a developing country like Bangladesh, how much resource should be allocated to eliminate ignorance, hunger and disease, vis-à-vis allocation for the defence forces, is often a matter of debate.
In developed democratic countries, the debates and discussion on budget, including defence budget, go on for months in the Parliament. The budget, when passed, reflects the national consensus. In Bangladesh, unfortunately, there is little time for a healthy debate. The Parliament must pass the budget by June 30. Given the weekends and holidays, there is very little time left to engage in threadbare discussion on the budget. Moreover, with virtually no opposition inside the parliament, we can only expect speeches long on eulogy and short on substance. Issues brought out by the MPs continue to be those of their own areas or of their business or professional interest. We shall invariably see that the Defence Budget will be 'Guillotined' in the evening of June 30 with no discussion on the subject. Military issues have often been shrouded under the cloak of secrecy. There have been attempts by the present government to open up some of the military matters to the public forum, such as major arms procurement and their induction. The Government had introduced short introductory courses in the National Defence College (NDC) with a view to educate political leaders, journalists, opinion makers and top government functionaries on defence matters. This was a step in the right direction. There is a Parliamentary Committee on defence. Neither are major policy or procurement decisions discussed there, nor are the details of discussions and decisions made public. Ordinary citizens are not privy to the inner dynamics of the defence forces. Every now and then we hear about “Forces' Goal 2021”, but we are not aware of what the parameters are and what would be the end state in 2021.
Unlike countries such as China, India or Pakistan, we do not have territorial dispute with our neighbours. Our entire 4,000 km border, as well as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with India and Myanmar, is demarcated. Bangladesh enjoys excellent relationship with all its neighbours. Our very friendly relations with India and China, as well as special relationship with the West and the Muslim World, mean that we can worry less about external aggression. However, there is, in the horizon, clear danger of internal dissension, Islamist extremism, militancy and terrorism. There are a number of armed separatist movements active in the NE states of India that might use Bangladesh's territory as sanctuary or as a conduit of illegal arms supply. Illegal drug trafficking, and now human trafficking, is posing serious security challenges that might see the military's involvement in future. We, therefore, need a military that will be able to effectively deal with the security challenges in the present and the future. While we continue to grapple with scant national resources, making judicious use of the defence budget should be a top priority. In the decision-making and implementation process, transparency and accountability at all levels are vitally important. Striking the right balance between national development and national defence is, therefore, most important.
The writer is Registrar, East West University.