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India-Israel relationship is plateauing. Can PM Modi's visit change this?

For it to truly blossom, we need human capital investment and equitable growth.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra  |  New Delhi 

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Starting tomorrow, 4th of July, Prime Minister Modi will commence the first visit by any Indian Prime Minister to While the commentariat waxes eloquent on the relationship, it is important for us to have a reality check and understand the micro-dynamics of this marriage.

There are three main components of India’s cooperation with that are deemed to hold the potential to “revolutionise” the relationship – water, agriculture and

Given India’s increasing water problems, and dire predictions of further drop in precipitation over the next few decades, water cooperation between India and is obviously critical. has now transitioned from a water-deficit state to one with a significant water-surplus. It has managed this through pioneering water desalination techniques. All good then – why can’t India benefit from this? Several reasons. First is that the desalination plants themselves have a massive ground footprint and draw huge amounts of energy. Given how many problems even routine industrial land acquisitions face in India, there are limits to how much land can in fact be requisitioned for the building of coastal desalination plants. Moreover, the question remains how much energy can India’s already overdrawn energy sector spare for a desalination plant infrastructure to supplement the water requirements of 1.3 billion Indians. As it is, India’s water pricing structure is deeply flawed, with 125 million litres wasted every day either through theft, bad plumbing, poor irrigation techniques, the cultivation of water intensive crops like sugarcane, or the casual growth of the ecological disaster that is the eucalyptus tree.  Then there is the issue of the desalination plants discharge – dumping high levels of salt into the seas – creating havoc on a coastal ecosystem that has already been ravaged by unchecked coastal fishing. In effect given its high cost, for desalination to make any realistic sense for India, India will have to solve a host of politically charged problems including land, electricity, fishing and farming, something no government can realistically afford to do.

The second field of cooperation said to hold a bright future is Israel’s pioneering use of novel irrigation and agricultural techniques that greatly reduced water consumption while multiplying yield. Duplicating this template in India has several problems yet again of a politically intractable nature. First up is the fact that while Israeli drip irrigators are not very expensive, they are not exactly cheap either. They are designed for Israeli kibbutz style collective farming, where purchasing power is significantly higher, and crops are grown for commercial purposes. India’s land is used overwhelmingly for subsistence farming and land sizes far too small to justify the investment in these drip irrigators. Even if miraculously somehow one were to consolidate farming into collectives, the problem of transport infrastructure remains; vast amount of India’s crops rot in transit due to poor farm to market infrastructure (67 million tonnes per last count). The crops grown are equally important as they simply do not fetch high enough prices and as last year’s onion crop showed these basic crops face the classic economics dilemma of poverty amidst plenty. A particularly foolhardy attempt at growing higher value crops like artichokes and asparagus in Jharkhand by some well-intentioned but clearly clueless Germans has come to nothing, because the produce could not be transported in time to a market. Then one faces the challenge of interstate water treaties. Karnataka for example cannot carry out “repairs” to its irrigation system without permission from Tamil Nadu as per the Kavere Water Agreement. This means that even if Karnataka were to overcome land size, crop pattern and transport issues, it would still be subject to a Tamil Nadu veto should it decide to introduce drip irrigation into its irrigation mix.

Finally we have the subject of where we are treated to constant drivel on how every single purchase from will become a game-changer. does not produce complete systems – it produces subsystems, which need to be integrated into other countries weapons platforms, a horrendously complex process. India has no demonstrated expertise in this field, nor does it have universities that teach systems integration. Adding to this – Israeli weapons thrive in the small to medium sector ecosystem due to a highly volatile market and constantly changing threats and the consequent need to innovate rapidly. India’s SMEs are virtually non-existent and where they exist, they are neither empowered, nor are they earmarked for technology – all of which has to be given to the sterile public sector units due to the nature of the gravy train.  Then of course is the fact that refuses to share source-codes for any product that has to be integrated with Russian systems for operational security reasons – always problematic for a country like India where most systems are Russian. Finally there is the issue of poor human resources on the Indian side. The naval MF-STAR radar and long range Barak missile which India paid for and was meant to co-develop are manufactured wholly in Israel, India having failed miserably in its development share. This results in the same old story of price gouging with each additional tranche facing cost escalation. Even where technology has been transferred as in the case of gallium arsenide chips for radars, Indian AWACS radars have abysmal performance since India’s atrocious engineering “talent pool” cannot develop the matching signal processing algorithms. What we still fail to understand is that the country’s is a complex ecosystem – mixing and matching does not produce better products, it can frequently destroy a good product as has been the case with the Sukhoi 30.

What then is the way forward? The first is in the realm of civilian nuclear reactors. owns several patents in this field and its own reactor Dimona is obsolescent, though given the implications even in the civilian sector this will have to be managed at the prime ministerial level and naval propulsion reactors may be an important avenue forward where India brings much to the table. In security, Israel’s methodical approach to population control, oblique methods of warfare are an important template for India – if only we refocus our efforts from technology to human capital. In agriculture it is imperative that instead of buying outright, cooperates with India at a state government level and find ways of overcoming the structural problems of the Indian market and finally in water, Israel’s ability to make potable water out of thin air is a model that must be duplicated post haste in conjunction with the rural parts of the national solar mission.

The story of India - relations then is one of plateauing. For it to truly blossom we need to move away from staid, banal narratives peddled by the commentariat and move our relationship into the sphere of human capital investment and equitable growth. As Narendra Modi becomes the first Indian PM to visit Israel, let us hope that he can revitalise this relationship so that it can achieve its full potential.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies and tweets as @iyervval

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.