Gathered under a huge banyan tree are a couple of dozen kids between the ages of six and ten. I walk up to meet them with my heart doing leapfrogs. A friend has assigned me the job of speaking to them about my experiences working in Kutch after the 2001 Republic Day earthquake there, and as the moment approaches I realize this may be a much harder assignment than I had blithely assumed it would be. How do I say what I want to say in a way that will keep young kids interested? What kind of questions will they ask? Adults and their reactions, I'm used to. But kids?
In the end, it turns out fine. The kids are eager, attentive and curious, in ways that adults could never be. They quickly put me at ease. They ask bright, intriguing questions. Even if we are discussing a huge tragedy, I enjoy trying to answer them. I hope they enjoy our exchange as well.
Then comes the one question that throws me -- from an adult. Hovering anxiously at the back of the little crowd, clearly itching to get something vitally important off her chest -- oh, so much more important than anything a mere kid could dream up! -- is a short lady in a mustard-yellow sari. When she gets her chance, she asks: "What about infiltration? After the quake, didn't the Pakistanis start infiltrating into Kutch? Isn't this a threat to our security?"
Out loud, I can only stammer something ("No") that doesn't satisfy her at all. In my mind, I metaphorically smack my forehead in amazement.
Here's this vast, destructive earthquake: houses and buildings collapsed over half a state, tens of thousands dead, reports of disorganized rescue and wrong-headed relief efforts, worries about how to rebuild a daunting number of shattered lives, outrage over shoddy buildings erected by criminal builders ... here's all this, but what's this woman's sole concern after the event? That Pakistan might take advantage and charge into some of India's most inhospitable terrain: the vast brown emptiness of the Rann of Kutch. Vast brown emptiness now riven in long fault lines by the shaking of the ground.
The perversity of this thought is almost breathtaking.
Consider: That R-Day and after, what was it that most threatened the security of the lives of innumerable Gujaratis hit by the quake? Things come to mind, and you don't have to have visited the zone, as I did, to know of them. Pitifully constructed buildings, a state administration glacial in its response, a Prime Ministerial visit that threw the administration into further disarray, the incompetent direction of rescue teams and distribution of relief material. Arguably, each of these did their own bit to add to the number of Indians who died in the disaster. In fact, it wasn't just that people died: on a swing through Kutch a year after the quake, I found people by the hundreds still sleeping in the open on the rubble of their homes. What else did Kutch live through in that time but profound and widespread insecurity in Gujarat? (I'm not even getting at what came only a month after my return visit: the horrifying carnage of 2002).
Yet for this adult person, none of this even registered. The threat to security, for her, came only from the land across the border. A land that, as a pertinent aside, just happened to send a planeload of relief material to Gujarat after the quake. What did the mustard-yellow woman think of that? "Oh, it was just a political stunt," said she scornfully. Sure, it might have been a stunt, but it was still a planeload of relief material.
All of which left me thinking: is it time we searched for new meaning for this term "security"? As long as we can see evil designs lying only across the Rann, we will look past, to take just one from that list, the scum who built the rotten buildings in whose crumbled remains hundreds died in Ahmedabad. And since I took that from the list: truly, what could be a greater danger to your own security than your own home crumbling under you because it was built on sand and greased palms? Than the same happening to fellow citizens all around you?
But this must be a silly notion. To far too many of us, security has come to mean battling Pakistan, and only battling Pakistan. Among other things, this produces for us the usual unquestioned annual increase in the defence budget. For example, in that very year of the Kutch quake, then-Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha raised defence spending to Rs 62,000 crore (Rs 620 billion -- this year it has reached nearly Rs 800 billion).
What's more, an expert news analysis of this spending explained to me then that this Rs 620 billion level was required because a "funds crunch hit the Army's preparedness during the Kargil conflict in May-July 1999."
Yes, the Army was under-prepared for Kargil -- that's well known. But what "funds crunch" are we talking about?
In 1996, then-Finance Minister P Chidambaram presented a budget which allocated 278 billion rupees for defence. In 1997, that figure went up to 356 billion rupees. In 1998, Yashwant Sinha raised it to 412 billion. In 2000: 586 crore. In 2001: 620 crore.
Yet we are told regularly, and expected to swallow silently, that our armed forces face a "funds crunch." Or that defence spending has "declined." That our "security" is therefore "compromised" and "threatened." That therefore we must pay ever more for defence. We pay more every year, but our "security" has remained under "threat" now for nearly 60 years. All our Independent Indian life.
Seems to me that the only thing that has declined, that is threatened, is our willingness to apply a dose of scepticism to such talk. In all the years I have followed defence figures, there has not been one single time it has actually decreased, not even in inflation-adjusted terms. Instead, spending has steadily increased, handily outstripping inflation every time. Yet the myth of a "decline", of a "funds crunch", persists.
And every time someone points out this truth that should be evident to anyone who simply follows the news, or reads what our various Finance Ministers tell us at budget time, that someone can look forward to piles of abuse from people around him. I suspect the mustard-yellow lady is one such abuser. They will say authoritatively, if shrilly: no, no, you've got it all wrong, our defence budget *has* been decreasing for years now, what do you know about national security, how dare you question defence spending, you damned traitor! (Nice equation here: Ask a question about the defence budget, turn into an instant traitor).
Yet if the Army's preparedness was in question at the time of Kargil, maybe we must attribute that not to a lack of funds, but to a failure of intelligence. (I use "intelligence" in all senses of the term). So does the preoccupation with funds divert us from pulling up those responsible for such a failure? Besides, the last time I looked, 278 to 356 to 412 to 586 to 620 to 800 -- all billion rupees -- does not fit any known definition of "decreasing."
I believe I know enough about national security to recognize that much.
All these thoughts raced through my mind as I tried to answer the mustard-yellow lady, trying to be as civil as possible. Still, I could tell from her expression, from the way she shook her head, that what I said had no effect. Nothing about the quake interested her except the spectre of "infiltration" by Pakistan, the threat to our "security" from that mirage on the Rann.
So as I travelled home afterwards, an idle thought crossed my mind. Nearly four years on, I suspect all those builders of third-rate buildings in Ahmedabad are back to business as usual, erecting more third-rate buildings that will collapse in the next quake.
What do we say about security now?