November 18, 2009

Reading Old Magazines: “India’s Mineral Wealth and Political Future”

Foreign policy watchers know that India is a hot topic in world politics, and will only become more so as its population and economic prospects increase (though its economy, like most others in the world, will take some time to recover after the global downturn). India is of interest to us natural security-minded people as well: it relies on imports for most of its increasing energy needs; it is a somewhat serious contributor to climate change with its growing use of coal to generate electricity and often a climate negotiations trend setter for developing nations; and its perennial water issues point to some worrying trends for the future. As we are just beginning to think more about these issues for India (and what it means for U.S. security), we won’t be drawing any hard conclusions until we’ve done a bit more research and exploration.  But with this in mind, I searched for some historic lit that might provide some interesting insights.

I found such an article way back in the October 1943 issue of Foreign Affairs: “India's Mineral Wealth and Political Future,” by Charles H. Behre, Jr., a lifelong geologist and partner in the mineral consulting firm Behre, Dolbear, and Company. The entire premise of the article is admittedly dated—it’s about how to partition India into a majority Hindu nation and a majority Muslim nation, which wouldn’t happen for another four years—but it gives insight into important minerals considerations, and provides a good comparison case for the current resource wealth of India and Pakistan.  Here are a few highlights:

  • Behre correctly predicted the rough boundaries of the partition—the primarily Muslim provinces becoming Pakistan to the west, and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) to the east—based on religious fault lines in the greater territory of then-India. He also predicted that although resource divisions would not necessarily delineate the new political boundaries, resource wealth would be disparate enough to cause tension: “It is…apparent that India’s minerals are so distributed between the parts of India in which Hindu and Moslem people preponderate that if India were divided on the basis of religious population the Hindu state would be rich and the Moslem state would be conspicuously poor.”
  • The author also discussed the “trinity” of modern industrial resources—coal, iron, and oil. Most of the coal, which remains important for India’s electricity, resided within the Hindu portions of 1943 India (and within the India we know today). And although there was never much oil, “all of India’s leading iron districts are in Hindustan.” In addition, one of the ores that can help strengthen steel (manganese) was found mainly in Hindustan, while another (chromium) was more equally distributed.
  • India’s mineral wealth would mean little without adequate human labor to turn it into something useful, and labor was something India had in plenty (and still has): “India not only has coal and iron for the machine. She has a superabundance of the final resource on which the machine is based: manpower. And the distinguishing characteristic of India's immense manpower, at least in Western eyes, is its low per capita consumption, in a word, again, its poverty.”

It truly is difficult—and seldom useful—to separate the disparate aspects of natural security, and this old piece does a good job of weaving the different resource issues into a narrative that is essentially about the country’s politics. An important task for the analyst is to understand how problems like energy security, food security, and climate change interact. While its conclusions and projections are well past dated, Behre’s article prompts several research inquiries that we’ll be sure to follow.