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Standing against the arms race

Strong people’s movement is imperative to curb the arms race from exploiting a nation’s essential resources

Standing against the arms race

The decision of President Trump to increase US defence spending by $108 billion or 18 per cent compared to last year's and his decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia have sent dangerous signals. The US defence budget has, in fact, grown by 23 per cent since Trump took over. This is happening at a time when several regions in the world are under serious conflicts. The situation in the Middle East is extremely alarming, with thousands of people running helter-skelter to save their lives from bullets, bombs and chemical weapons. Such people need the support of all kinds. They need food to sustain life. Lack of food is an understandable consequence in war-ridden areas. This affects the health of children very seriously. In such conditions, people are much more likely to fall ill and need medical support more than normal times. They also require treatment for disabilities occurring as a result of injuries in long-standing wars. And above all, they need a morale boost to come out of anxiety and stress disorders.

Due to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, about 75 per cent of the population — 22.2 million people — are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 11.3 million people in acute need, urgently requiring assistance to survive. Some 17.8 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from and 8.4 million are considered at risk of starvation. Acute malnutrition is threatening the lives of almost 400,000 children under the age of five.

But during conflict situations, humanitarian aid becomes difficult to be delivered and medical professionals find it hard to reach out to the affected population.

The world today is faced with challenges of new types of diseases. The Zika virus, Swine flu, SARS, Dengue, Chikungunya, etc., have become endemic in many parts of the globe. These need more research to fight back. Climatic changes are further worsening the situation; these are accompanied with various diseases which may occur as a direct result of climate variations, natural calamities and crop failures, which follow as a consequence of climate change. Increase in temperature by 2-3ºC would increase the number of people who, in climatic terms, are at risk of malaria by around 3-5 per cent, i.e. several hundred million. According to the World Health Report 2002, climate change was estimated to be responsible in 2000 for approximately 2.4 per cent of worldwide diarrhoea, and 6 per cent of malaria in some middle-income countries.

The utilisation of energy resources for production, maintenance, deployment and use of arms has grave environmental and climatic effects. A study on the climatic effect of limited nuclear exchange cautions that two billion people would be at risk due to fall in temperature in various parts of the world leading to crop failure, malnutrition, conflicts and diseases in the event of limited use of about 100 nuclear weapons. A major nuclear exchange could lead to an extinction of modern civilisation.

Increase in spending on arms race causes serious resource crunch on health, education and development. The developing countries and the poor in these countries are the worst-affected. Whatever resources are available are diverted away from common people. We have an example of Bengal famine where around 40 lakh people were reported to have died because the British government under Winston Churchill at that time in the mid-1940s diverted food material to its soldiers in Burma thus depriving the people in Bengal and Odisha of their basic sustenance diet and landing them in extreme malnutrition and consequential death.

The trend to increase arms spending has to be reversed. If the US increases its spending on arms, then do not expect other countries like Russia, China, India, Pakistan and others not to follow suit. This will have a collateral global effect and the world may be pushed towards a serious health crisis.

There is a need for strong public movements. During the period of the Cold War in 1986, there were 64,449 nuclear warheads on earth out of which the US had 23,317 and Russia 40,159. But the resistance to this nuclear weapons race was equally powerful. There were huge demonstrations around the globe against nuclear weapons. In the early 1980s, the revival of the nuclear arms race triggered large protests against nuclear weapons. In October 1981, half a million people took to the streets in several cities in Italy; more than 250,000 people protested in Bonn; 250,000 demonstrated in London, and 100,000 marched in Brussels. The largest anti-nuclear protest was held on June 12, 1982, when one million people demonstrated in New York City against nuclear weapons. In October 1983, nearly 3 million people across western Europe protested against nuclear missile deployments and demanded an end to the arms race; the largest crowd of almost one million people assembled in the Hague in the Netherlands. In Britain, 400,000 people participated in what was probably the largest demonstration in British history. We lack such strong protests now. Complacency and apathy can be disastrous.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Dr Arun Mitra

Dr Arun Mitra

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