How not to Help Kerala

The Times of India

August 27, 2018

Shivshankar Menon and Nirupama Rao, two amongst the most prominent foreign secretaries India has had, are now in a dilemma – on how strongly to pitch for a change in MEA’s policy that is obstructing the flow of Rs 700 crore of aid from UAE to Kerala, to help rebuild their flood-ravaged home state. Confronted with this predicament, both have tweeted hinting at the need for some exception to be made in this case.

There are primarily two perceptible reasons why India is declining foreign financial aid today. The first emanates from a throwback to the Cold War when two categories of aid, military and economic, were often used as instruments of foreign policy – mainly by the US and erstwhile USSR – to influence decisions in donee nations.

Humanitarian assistance, the third category of aid, was on the other hand, not used to achieve strategic objectives even then. To cite a typical example, when the US cut off aid to Pakistan in 1979 upon evidence that it had covertly acquired uranium enrichment technology, the Carter administration exempted food aid from the sanctions.

India is perhaps fearing that accepting financial aid could compromise its independence in decision making. This apprehension is misplaced in the present situation, as it cannot be anyone’s case that India of today would be vulnerable to undesirable pressures if it accepts humanitarian aid.

History would support such a conclusion. During the Cold War many nations, including India, relied heavily on the largesse of the major donor nations. Yet India showed the courage to accept US aid without compromising India’s foreign policy and pursued its strategy of non-alignment with unwavering commitment.

It was not that US aid was limited, it was diverse and extensive. It was so huge that Washington, not knowing what to do with much of the Indian currency it had accumulated under PL480 rupee payments, got its ambassador Patrick Moynihan to sign off to India, in February 1974, the largest cheque until then (Rs 1,664 crore). This was at a time when India’s economy was only a shadow of what it is today, and the nation more vulnerable.

Today the situation is very different. Cold War is history, India is not the India of yesteryear and the aid in question is purely humanitarian assistance.

The second reason for opposing aid is that India has purportedly become a large economic power today, growing at a blistering pace and can afford to reject foreign aid without consequence. While rejoicing in our rate of growth, we would be wise in not forgetting that our poor are amongst the poorest in the world and we rank 140th among nations in per capita income. Especially during human disasters, there is no room for vainglory.

Providing speedy and effective mitigation during natural disasters is also an issue of human rights, besides being an economic imperative in an increasingly borderless world. After the establishment of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), extension of international assistance during disasters with the help of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has become the norm.

Further, the aid offer of UAE need not even be seen as an offer from a nation to another, rather from a group of nearly 10 million (population of UAE) of which 3.3 million are Indians, 50% of whom are Keralites contributing substantially to the host nation’s economy and growth.

Even the most advanced nations do not let their economic power hinder the acceptance of humanitarian aid in calamities and India should behave no differently. Remember what Rajat Sharma, who flew his IL-76 aircraft for 25 hours with tarpaulins, blankets, personal hygiene kits among other items for the victims of hurricane Katrina, said on how the Americans responded when they received the 22 tonne consignment at Little Rock Airforce Base: “They were graciously accepted by the US authorities.” When the world’s only superpower and a nation with a per capita income over 50 times that of India in 2005 (when Katrina struck) could accept a measly $5 million as aid from India, what kind of self-pride are we worrying about?

And this is not the only instance. In 2011, when Japan was struck by earthquake, 179 countries and territories sent aid to, what was until a year before, the world’s second largest economy. Both men and material poured into the country. Japan even accepted aid from China – a nation with which it has several disputes – and assistance of $7 million from Thailand, whose per capita income was then only 11.4% of Japan’s.

What should we learn from this? The fear of the government that accepting humanitarian aid would compromise India’s independence in policy is exaggerated. In today’s interdependent world, nations are moving towards a paradigm where natural calamity in one nation is seen as a calamity everywhere, with human lives as the rallying cause and lesser importance ascribed to nationalities.

Let India not stand alone in objecting to the change. In this scenario, accepting aid without strings, cannot have many opponents. India has also been offering humanitarian assistance to many countries, so why can’t we accept it too? In any case, we would do well to keep politics, whether international or national, out of human disasters.

The writer was Additional Secretary to a former President of India