News & Politics

Open Letter to President Bush on His Visit to India

You may not have been informed that your future strategic partner in the war on terror is a nation plagued by child labor, starvation and poverty.
Dear President Bush,

Air Force One will touch down in the Indian capital in the early hours of Wednesday, March 1, on your maiden presidential visit to my country, the new star on the horizon for Washington. I am concerned that your preparation for the occasion might be as half-baked as the intelligence reports on WMD in Iraq or the state of levees in New Orleans, so I am writing to fill you in on some important details.

Your visit follows the state visit of President Chirac, who was in India for three days in February with a delegation of 30 businessmen. The day after you leave, Australian Prime Minister John Howard will grace India, followed by Chinese President Hu Jintao two months later. Presumably, the success of your visit, just like the rest of the parade, will depend on your ability to help induct the Indian government into the elite nuclear club of nations and for you to secure new contracts for your defense manufacturers.

Just a month ago, India was the proud host of DefExpo. All sorts of goodies ranging from anti-aircraft guns, artillery, military vehicles, decoy systems, rocket launcher systems, submarines, tanks, infantry combat vehicles and torpedoes were on display. The hawkers came from all parts of the world: France, Germany, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Israel, Bulgaria, Switzerland, etc. But did you know that it was your 20 major defense companies, including Raytheon and Lockheed Martin and, of course, the U.S. Army, who outshone the others, promoting everything from fighter jets to over-the-horizon radars?

India's desire for military hardware and software has made it the third-largest spender on defense in the world, next only to the United States and China. It was the largest arms importer in 2004 and now is in the market for 126 new multi-role combat aircraft, which could be a lucrative $6.5 billion contract. Recent announcements from the Indian government indicate that additional perks might come for your defense corporations. The new budget presented in the Indian Parliament on February 28, 2006, has allocated a substantial amount -- Rs. 89,000 crores ($20 billion) -- to defense.

The 2006 budget is graced with the words of Swami Vivekanand, "We reap what we sow. We are the makers of our own fate. The wind is blowing; those vessels whose sails are unfurled catch it, and go forward on their way, but those which have their sails furled do not catch the wind. Is that the fault of the wind? … We make our own destiny."

But India's destiny, determined by the "karma" of the Indian government is described on the World Food Program's country page: "Nearly 50 percent of the world's hungry live in India … Around 35 percent of India's population -- 350 million -- are considered food-insecure … Nearly nine out of 10 pregnant women aged between 15 and 49 years suffer from malnutrition and anemia … More than half of the children under five are moderately or severely malnourished, or suffer from stunting."

Yes, an estimated 330 to 350 million people in India survive on less than $1 a day, joining the ranks of starving millions in the country who face the prospect of "starvation deaths" each year.

India's destiny is that it is a nation plagued by child labor. An estimated 60 to 115 million children are classified as working children -- the highest number in the world. Deprived of their childhoods, most have never seen the inside of a school. However, if confronted by those overzealous NGO types such as Human Rights Watch, you can always counter with the argument that no current figures are available for the number of children engaged in child labor, since the Indian government does not collect such data. And yes, it is for similar reasons that the efficient Indian government, proud of its human resources that are running Silicon Valley from the United States to Bangalore, does not bother to keep data on the numbers of people displaced by large dams either.

You are right about the possibility of India being a strategic coalition partner in the war on terror. You have much in common. You have come under a lot of flak for the war in Iraq. According to the U.S. group, National Priorities Budget, the $240 billion bill for Iraq could have fully funded global anti-hunger efforts for 10 years; a worldwide AIDS programs for 24 years; or ensured basic immunizations for every child in the world for 80 years. Had that money been spent elsewhere, the lives of 2,291 American soldiers and countless Iraqis who have died in Iraq, might have been saved.

I don't expect that anyone has informed you of these realities. Quite the opposite: the Sunday edition of the New York Times exclaims, "In the India that President Bush will visit this week, an extravagant ethos of bling has arrived. Gone is a half-century legacy of independent India -- stubbornly socialist, avowedly nonaligned, deeply anti-American."

Such media coverage, devoted to modern-day Indian "nouveaux nawabs" -- some 70,000 people who earn about $232,000 a year -- has obfuscated the reality in a country of a billion people.

Mr. President, the obvious has been stated. It might be good to revisit your agenda. The poor, the marginalized and the hungry, along with civil society groups will line the streets of Delhi and Hyderabad, where your motorcade passes, to protest the visit of "W," a symbol of war. Indians want peace. Indians want bread, not bombs.
Anuradha Mittal is executive director of the Oakland Institute.
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