The question would be foremost on the mind of any sensible person anywhere in the world. War is a curse on humanity. No one wins in the long run especially when it concerns neighbours.
Pakistan today retaliated to India’s pre-dawn bombings on Tuesday on terrorists’ training hideout in Pakistan by its Mirage fighters. So far, both countries have lost a fighter jet each, with firing being exchanged on many sections of Kashmir border. One Indian air force pilot has been captured alive by Pakistan.
The tit-for-tat firings and bombings have forced both the countries to vacate critical airspace for their respective air force, causing massive disruption and potential economic loss. India ordered 8 airports in three northern states to be closed for civil traffic, including vacating New Delhi airport.
Relations between the two neighbours have remained bitter and peace always short-lived since Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947 by the departing British, who left the northern Kashmir state disputed. The two have fought three full scale wars, with the last one in 1971, which led to dismemberment of Pakistan’s eastern wing and emergence of Bangladesh.
In 1999, the two fought a limited area war as India battled to get illegal Pakistani incursions on Indian mountains around Kargil in Jammu & Kashmir. The two lost more than 1,500 soldiers in 1999, and more than 5,000 in 1971. About 93,000 Pakistan soldiers surrendered in 1971, and millions of East Pakistan refugees flooded India, causing economic distress around the same time as the first global oil shock of early 1970s.
What makes the present escalation dangerous is the fact that both countries officially went nuclear in 1998. Even as the chances of the use of nukes remain miniscule, they remain a latent threat.
While a war will hurt both badly, it could damage Pakistan much more severely because of the fragility of its economy and state of finances.
The Islamic republic, with population of 197 million, a small GDP base of $305 billion, has a central fiscal budget deficit of 5.5% in 2017-18. Just about $27 billion of the revenue came from taxes, and the latest budget set aside 26% of total expenditure of Rs 4,200 billion towards defence spending, leaving little for development.
Its current account deficit (CAD) surged 60% in the quarter ended September 2018 to 4.7% of the GDP, highlighting its inability to pay for imports. Its currency remains weaker and stock markets shaky to any turbulence.
Its top five exports comprising more than 57% came from cotton, apparel, crochet or knitted clothing, and clothing accessories. Other key exports include cereals, fish, salt, leather, sugar, sulphur and cement, making it extremely vulnerable to vagaries in prices, trends or cycles. A 13% increase in remittances from nationals living overseas helped bridge the gap.
The south Asian nation that draws comfort from being part of Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) is seeking a loan from International Monetary Fund and prime minister Imran Khan, a former cricket captain who won his country the world cup, has visited many friendly countries seeking loans and help, exposing its vulnerability.
The country banks on its close relations with China. Yet, the Belt and Road Initiative and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, valued at $62 billion, which runs across Pakistan, leaves it nervous of retaining its sovereignty with over-dependence on the mighty global economy.
Poverty remains a bane of both the countries. Thirty percent of Pakistanis and about a sixth of India’s 1.3 billion live under poverty, as per the World Bank, which defines poor as those living on less than $1.9 per day. The potential human cost for both makes it worse as the two remain home to some of the poorest, underfed and sick children in the world.
Pakistan remains a high child mortality rate country, where one in every 14 child dies before reaching the age of one year and one in every 11 doesn’t survive fifth birthday. With an average literacy rate of 59%, just about 39% of its population get piped water. River Indus, which flows from India provides for almost 90% of its irrigation needs. Its Balochistan state, which accounts for almost half the country’s landmass, remains barren most part of the year.
While India is not immune to the curse of war, its $2.7 trillion economy, a shade behind France and the UK, and among the world’s top six, gives it greater depth to last any long drawn out war. India is also among the fastest growing large economies. Yet, it too doesn’t have the luxury of splurging on wars.
Pakistan’s PM, Imran Khan, made an appeal late afternoon, "I ask India: with the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation? If this escalates, it will no longer be in my control or in Modi’s. We invite you for dialogue…better sense must prevail.’’
Better sense will save both the countries from a disaster.