The increasing range, speed, accuracy and destructive capability of firepower has been unremittingly on display in the Russia-Ukraine war for nearly eight months. The lethality of weapons is often displayed by their effect on civilian infrastructure—wrecked buildings, cratered roads, twisted electric poles and corpses of civilians. Missiles, drones and artillery constitute the predominant vectors that bring destruction and damage on permanent structures that can be easily identified and targeted.
The effectiveness of firepower and the degree of difficulty to defend are inversely proportional to distance to the the target. This is certainly not a new lesson for India’s national security planners while deciding the location for strategic infrastructure. But it seems that there is increasing proclivity at the national level to not give such decisions the weightage that national security imposes. Two recent decisions of the central government are probably revealing as both relate to locating strategic infrastructure facilities in the state of Gujarat.
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The strategic importance of Gujarat
Gujarat is a frontline state that has both land and maritime borders with Pakistan. The state has historically been a major industrial and trading hub of the country that continues to attract large projects. Its industrial products include pharmaceuticals, chemicals, refining and petrochemicals, ceramics, textiles, automobiles, cotton, diamond cutting and polishing inter alia. In agriculture, Gujarat is a producer of cotton, groundnuts, dates, sugar cane, milk and milk products. Several ports on its coastline act as conduits to national and international trade. The strategic importance of Gujarat as an economic hub is obvious. Such importance also harbours a strategic vulnerability because of its proximity to Pakistan—one that will only increase as Pakistan develops greater capacity for long-range firepower from China. It is a process that is already underway and could be expected to endure.
It is certainly the case that all strategically important fixed assets in all parts of the country may be expected to fall within the range of China and Pakistan through vectors based on land or the oceans. But strategically, if distance can provide relatively better protection, it must also play its role in ‘location’ decision-making. Undoubtedly, there are other major factors of consideration, like the availability of human capital as well as supporting industrial and natural ecosystems. Commercial considerations do have a major role but cannot be allowed to become the overriding factor influencing decision-making power if strategic vulnerability prevails. In essence, this decision-making perspective must encompass a much larger expanse that transcends the benefits conferred on any particular state.
It is not known whether a policy has been framed that guides locating strategically important infrastructure. In any case, as per existing guidelines, when a decision regarding such matters has to be taken, it is incumbent on the ministry/department processing such cases to consult the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) that services the National Security Council(NSC) and is supervised by the National Security Agency (NSA). However, it seems that such consultations have not always been done. On 22 October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reminded his ministers and secretaries to analyse the strategic point of view while framing policies. He even pointed to instances where notes from the NSCS were not given their due importance.
Gujarat’s vulnerability demands attention
The strategic vulnerability factor in Gujarat does not seem to have received the type of attention it demands, especially when one considers recent decisions regarding the locating of a major semiconductor and aircraft manufacturing plant. Both would certainly qualify as infrastructural elements that fall in the basket of national security due to their strategic impact on India’s national security should they be damaged or destroyed.
The Vedanta-Foxconn joint venture plans to invest nearly Rs 1.5 lakh crore to set up a semiconductor fabrication unit, a display fabrication unit and a semiconductor assembling and testing unit in Gujarat. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was recently signed with the state government and efforts are on to identify about 1,000 acres of land that meets certain stringent criteria. This includes requirements such as being away from highways to prevent vibrations caused by the movement of heavy vehicles. Procedurally, such an MoU should only be signed after consultations with the Centre and after taking inputs from NSCS. Unless of course, consultations were not considered as necessary as they did not have national security implications. If this is the case, there is nothing stopping the NSCS from weighing in on the matter.
In 2021, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had signed a Rs 21,935 crore contract with Airbus Defence and Space for 56 C-295 transport aircraft to modernise the Indian Air Force’s fleet by replacing its ageing Avro-748 aircraft, first inducted in the 1960s. This marked a major milestone in the much-vaunted Atmanirbharta journey as it was the first time that a private consortium was going to manufacture a military aircraft in India. On 30 October 2022, the Prime Minister laid the foundation stone for the manufacturing facility set up by the Tata-Airbus consortium at Vadodara in Gujarat. The decision to locate the facility in Gujarat instead of Maharashtra is part of an ongoing political acrimony in the state, with the opposition accusing the incumbent Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party government of sleeping at the wheel while Gujarat walked away with the investment cake. There is reason to ponder if strategic implications of its location in terms of long-term vulnerability were taken into account.
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Sensitising security planners
The answers to the above questions, including ones that pertain to Vedanta-Foxconn semiconductors, will lie buried in the classified files of the central government. But there is no reason whatsoever to not pose parliamentary questions on the existence of a policy document on siting of strategically significant infrastructure. Why have semiconductors and transport aircraft projects been allotted to Gujarat despite its relative vulnerability in contrast to leveraging India’s continental depth?
One can also expect that the answer to a parliamentary question would conceal more than it reveals. But it may at least provide the impulse to sensitise security planners to take suitable actions to improve strategic decision-making. At the least, it might facilitate the expression of professional opinions on file that the political leadership may hesitate to overrule. For it is never easy, at least on paper, for narrow political views to strangle national security interests. Most politicians would be wary of paper trails that betray their domestic compulsions.
If there is nothing on paper about the two projects being put through the strategic sieve, then it would be unacceptable from a strategic and security perspective as also from an accountability point of view. Greater circumspection in these matters is definitely called for.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)