A new verbal duel has ensued between New Delhi and Kerala over the generous offer of global aid to the state, for flood relief, from foreign governments. The federal government, which administers foreign policy and international aid has turned down the offers. The question is, why?
The world is reaching out to flood-hit Kerala with generous financial assistance. It is important to understand as to why nations, global NGOs, non-resident Indians and multinationals want to donate for flood relief. They have been moved by the devastation caused by the deluge that has left more than 400 people dead, thousands injured and homeless, millions of hectares of land and home submerged, cattle dead, property destroyed and the Cochin international airport swamped and out of function. Significantly, millions of Keralites migrate in search of employment across the globe, especially to the Middle East contributing to the region’s economy, while sending back much-needed foreign remittance worth INR 1 trillion annually.
Of all the countries, it is the Gulf nations, where 2.4 million Keralites work, that are keen to provide generous aid. The governments of United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Sharjah and Maldives want to donate for rain-battered Kerala. UAE offered to donate USD 100 million.
In response to the State Government’s demand for a USD 376 million special package, the federal government has promised an immediate release of USD 86 million. In addition, several state governments have chipped in and announced their cash contributions to the tune of USD 29 million so far.
Refusing aid not for the first time
This is not the first time that India has turned down such offers. India has refused international financial aid to deal with natural disasters since the Congress-led UPA-I beginning 2004—be it the 2004 tsunami, the Kashmir earthquake a year later or the Uttarakhand floods in 2013.
After Tsunami struck several countries, including India in December 2004, the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had observed, “We feel that we can cope with the situation on our own and we will take their help if needed.” In the 2004 tsunami—which affected the coast of Tamil Nadu as well as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, more than 12,000 people were killed and 6, 00,000 had been displaced—but India had turned down aid from foreign governments.
Also, Indian naval ships were quickly deployed to countries, such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives for relief operations.
The successive governments have felt that India has the capacity to handle disasters. Also, accepting from any one government opens the floodgates for others as well, and it would be diplomatically difficult to refuse from some, while accepting from others.
Changing image from aid receiver to aid giver
As one of the fastest-growing economies and the sixth largest in the world, India’s stature is rising. It is trying to change its image from that of an aid receiver to aid giver.
It has extended assistance to the Philippines, Myanmar and Nepal, in the past and even sent an Indian Air Force aircraft with 25 tonnes of relief supplies to the Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas for victims of Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China, an Indian Air Force aircraft had delivered relief material to the victims.
In 2005, India had given USD 25 million to Pakistan for the Kashmir earthquake. It is a different story that Islamabad refused to encash it.
Earlier, India had accepted aid from foreign governments for the Uttarkashi earthquake (1991), Latur earthquake (1993), Gujarat earthquake (2001), Bengal cyclone (2002) and Bihar floods (July 2004).
Verbal duel between central and state government
As Delhi turned down aid from foreign governments, the Kerala government seems to be holding a different view.
“National Disaster Management Plan Chapter 9, on international cooperation, accepts that in times of severe calamity, voluntary aid given by a foreign government can be accepted. Still, if the Union government chooses to adopt a negative stance towards the offer made by the UAE government, they should compensate Kerala,” said a Twitter post by Thomas Issac, Kerala’s finance minister, on August 22.
“We asked the Union government for financial support of USD 318 million; they grant us a precious USD 86 million. We make no request to any foreign government but the UAE government voluntarily offers USD 100 million. No, says the Union government, it is below our dignity to accept foreign aid. This is a dog in the manger policy,” he said in another post.
However, New Delhi has stuck to its ground. In a note to all Indian missions around the world, the government has directed its respective envoys to politely turn down the financial assistance from foreign countries saying that the Government of India has decided to ‘rely solely on domestic efforts’ to combat the challenges.
“Early indications point towards requirements that are within the capacity of the people and the Government of India to meet,” the envoys have been asked to convey.
India reviewed its foreign aid policy in 1999 when the then Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was in power. It pruned the list of donors. While Japan was retained, several European countries were deleted. However, in the same year, when Odisha was struck by a super cyclone, India accepted assistance from abroad including the European Union.
Two years later when a massive earthquake struck Bhuj, in Gujarat in 2001, the then BJP government was selective in its acceptance of aid from the international community.
However, the Indian government has made it clear that it has no problem in accepting humanitarian assistance from sources other than foreign governments. “In line with the existing policy, the government is committed to meeting the requirements for relief and rehabilitation through domestic efforts. Contributions to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund and the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund from NRIs, PIOs and international entities, such as foundations would, however, be welcome.”
This debate will continue to rage in the coming weeks and months as Kerala tries to recover from the century’s worst disaster.