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Arms Race Leaves Medicine Behind

India and Pakistan spend billions on weapons while aid groups struggle for funds to fight polio and tuberculosis.

November 12, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — When India signed a contract to buy a $1-billion military radar system last month, foreign aid agencies were still searching for $50 million in donations to defeat the country's polio scourge.

Across the border, Pakistan's armed forces were updating their multibillion-dollar shopping list, including a request for U.S.-made F-16 jets, while aid groups fighting a tuberculosis epidemic struggled against a lethal funding gap.

India and Pakistan, locked in an escalating arms race, were the world's second- and third-biggest weapons importers last year. Only China spent more on the international weapons market, according to the 2003 yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a leading monitor of the global arms trade.

Arms control advocates argue that foreign development aid for health, education and other projects allows India and Pakistan to divert huge portions of their budgets to a military buildup that could trigger the fourth major war between the two nuclear-armed countries since they gained independence from Britain in 1947.

"All external assistance frees resources for arms spending," Husain Haqqani, a leading Pakistani journalist and visiting scholar at Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a phone interview.

"So basically, the international development community has to put its foot down and say: 'This is what we think has to be your optimum national security spending figure, and if you exceed that, no money from us for schools. You can build them with the money you're spending on arms.' "

As a group, aid workers are among the loudest opponents of arms sales because many of them see firsthand the human costs of war. But aid agencies are reluctant to deny support for the poor in order to punish the politicians.

"It's better to work with governments, and prod them in the right direction, on issues such as the fight against polio that affect the whole world," said Maria Calivis, UNICEF representative in India. "I also know that when that is done, you can galvanize a lot of support rather than taking the risk of postponing the resolution of such issues."

Polio Outbreak

The human cost of the Indian government's priorities is painfully evident in a polio epidemic that struck the country's north last year. The disease severely disables or kills its victims, many of whom are children infected by dirty water.

Polio was close to joining smallpox in being eradicated until it struck back with a vengeance in two of India's poorest states. They accounted for 71% of the world's 1,920 confirmed polio cases in 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The World Health Organization blamed the Indian epidemic on a drop in the number of vaccinations.

An intensified polio eradication program in India will cost more than $94 million next year, and campaign organizers are still looking for foreign donors to pledge more than half that amount, Calivis said.

India has reported only 160 polio cases so far this year, and the target date for preventing the transmission of polio anywhere on Earth is the end of next year, Calivis added.

Tuberculosis kills more than 50,000 Pakistanis a year and infects 250,000. The infectious lung disease is easily prevented with vaccination, or treated with relatively cheap drugs.

More than a third of India and Pakistan's people live in desperate poverty. Their governments' dismal records on public health, education and aiding the poor have kept them in the bottom third of nations on the United Nations' human development index. India ranks 127th, while Pakistan is 144th on the U.N.'s ranking of 175 countries, which looks at child mortality, literacy and other factors. Norway is first on the list and the U.S. seventh.

The arms race between India and Pakistan has intensified since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. While Russia remains India's biggest arms supplier, and China is Pakistan's, the U.S. is aggressively pursuing stronger defense ties on the subcontinent.

Eleven days after the Sept. 11 strikes, President Bush lifted a ban on weapons sales to India and Pakistan that had been imposed mainly as punishment for their nuclear arms programs and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's 1999 coup.

Last month, the Pentagon agreed to refurbish Pakistan's 40 U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets and to allow North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally Belgium to sell more F-16s to the country, Defense Secretary Hamid Nawaz Khan told reporters in Islamabad, the capital.

He said Pentagon officials had assured him that Congress would approve the sales, which would be made under a $3-billion aid package Bush pledged after a June meeting with Musharraf at Camp David. Half of the grant was allocated for military aid.

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