RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — Thirty-three years ago, Pakistan's foreign minister vowed that his people would eat grass or leaves--go hungry--to keep up with India if it exploded an atomic bomb.
Now, as Pakistan prepares to answer India's nuclear tests of earlier this month, the two nations are poised to enter a new phase of an arms race that has already helped make them two of the poorest countries in the world.
Across the subcontinent, the juxtaposition of nuclear weapons against vast numbers of people living in conditions of medieval poverty is touching off a debate about the wisdom of developing ultra-sophisticated weapons at the expense of solving intractable social problems.
"This crisis is a diversion from the problems that really ail us," said Iftikar Ahmad, a barrister and a leader of the Pakistan People's Party, the country's main opposition in Parliament. "People can forget about education and health and social services now."
The crisis sparked by the five Indian nuclear tests may have altered for a moment the world's image of South Asia--a place of grinding and almost unfathomable poverty. In India, the blasts proved enormously popular, gathering, according to a Times of India poll, the support of 91% of the population. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, his coalition teetering only weeks before, is now being feted as a national savior.
Yet behind the brief flourish of high-tech prowess, a thousand sad statistics tell a more complex story.
While India produces some of the world's most sought-after scientists and computer engineers, half of the country's 950 million people do not earn enough money to provide for themselves. India's literature is celebrated throughout the world, yet 1 of every 3 men--and 2 of 3 women--cannot read. More than half the homes do not have toilets.
In even the richest neighborhoods of New Delhi, the Indian capital, the government cannot provide regular electricity; entire areas often go for days without power. Diseases such as leprosy, tuberculosis and polio, largely eradicated in most parts of the world, still ravage tens of thousands.
Pakistan Ranks Low in Adult Literacy
Here in Pakistan, the beautiful, rolling hills and modern architecture of Islamabad, the capital, give way to villages where people work in slave-like conditions as bonded laborers. The country ranks 160th of 174 countries in world adult literacy. In rural areas, where most Pakistanis live, 87% of girls and 75% of boys are not enrolled in school. A typical Pakistani earns $1.25 a day; there is one physician available to treat every 2,037 people.
Statistics like these are at the heart of the emerging arms debate in India and Pakistan. While they still are a minority in each of their countries, groups are questioning the wisdom of an Indo-Pakistani arms race at a time when so many people in both nations lack food, shelter, schooling and medicine.
"Nuclear lavas do not fill empty stomachs," Mahbub ul Haq, Pakistan's former finance minister, wrote in a column published Thursday in the Dawn, Pakistan's leading newspaper. "Nor have desperately poor nations ever made great superpowers."
In a demonstration last week in New Delhi, crowds carried placards declaring, with bitter sarcasm, "No water, no electricity, no problem--we have the bomb."
When Vajpayee visited the Pokhran test site in the Rajasthan desert Wednesday, demonstrators demanded a hospital for their village. The All-India Women's Democratic Assn., with 5.1 million members, dispatched a letter to him, contending the blasts would hamper efforts to improve the lot of India's poor.
"It's not just a question of the money involved," Brinda Karat, the group's general secretary, said Wednesday. "The focus and attention of the government, which should be on the basic needs of the people, gets diverted by the sort of warmongering and jingoism we're seeing. And the attention of the public gets diverted as well--quite deliberately."
Conventional Forces Also a Huge Drain
The arms race in South Asia is not new, nor is the addition of nuclear weapons to the arsenals of each country likely to outstrip the sums spent on conventional armies and navies. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947 and appear unable to bridge their main difference--the division of Jammu and Kashmir, a region claimed by both nations.
Yet a growing number of critics say the cost of Indo-Pakistani belligerence is diverting public money from health and education and that defense spending has helped cripple the countries' efforts to lift themselves from their desperate condition.
"There is a historical price for our bad relations," said Shahrukh Rafi Khan, director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. "That is these enormous military bills."