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Exclusives - 23 August, 2018

When US can accept foreign aid for Hurricane Katrina, why can’t India?

The Narendra Modi government’s refusal to accept the UAE offer of aid to help the worst-ever flood since 1924 ravaged Kerala lacks the backing of a government policy...

By Samuel Mathai

The Narendra Modi government’s refusal to accept the UAE offer of aid to help the worst-ever flood since 1924 ravaged Kerala lacks the backing of a government policy, a moral reasoning or even good diplomacy.

In 2005, the United States was swamped with offers of help from countries around the world when it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Though the US refused to take help from Cuba and Venezuela, countries hostile to it, it accepted aid from most others, including even poor nations.

The intense rain and landslides in Kerala have left over 350 dead and rendered thousands of people homeless. About 80,000 people have been rescued so far. Over 1,500 relief camps have been set up across the state that currently house at least 2,23,139 people.

It is quite clear from the National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP) of May 2016, which says India must be open to accept foreign aid at times of disaster. This makes the government’s insistence that it is only sticking to the earlier Manmohan Singh regime’s so-called policy of not accepting foreign aid in case of disasters meaningless.

Singh’s anti-aid attitude, announced in 2005 in the aftermath of tsunami, isn’t a policy that finds place in any of the statutes that govern calamities. It only became an unwritten convention. On the other hand, what must be considered government policy is what is laid down in writing in NDMP of 2016, which keeps the question of accepting foreign aid an open one.

The NDA, which came to power in 2014 on the basis of mis-governance of the two-term UPA government, must regard Singh’s antipathy towards accepting foreign aid too as yet another instance of his government’s lopsided priorities and not stick to it as if it’s a rule set in stone.

It’s the collective wisdom of the bureaucrats who drafted the NDMP two years after NDA came to power, which conforms to acceptable rationale and which must be respected.

The operative sentence in the NDMP on foreign aid is this: ... if the national government of another country voluntarily offers assistance as a goodwill gesture in solidarity with the disaster victims, the Central Government may accept the offer.

The Modi government apparently takes cover under the word may in the phrase: “...  government may accept the offer”. It’s common knowledge that in bureaucratic and legal parlance the word may is the default choice in preference to must. As courts around the world have ruled, the word may often, if not always, implies shall or must.

But may also adds a discretionary element to the action in question. It’s this discretion that the Modi government must exercise in the case of Kerala floods. The NDMP also talks of a “goodwill gesture”. There is nothing to suggest that UAE’s offer of help is anything but a goodwill gesture. And by no stretch of imagination can anyone attribute sinister designs or diabolical motives to UAE’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in making a telephone call to Modi, offering assistance.

It’s another matter that the government of neither UAE nor India has confirmed that what’s on offer is $100 million or Rs 700 crore. We only have the word of Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan for that and the figure must be considered right till it’s proved wrong.

The only consideration that must have gone into UAE’s generous quantum aid is the sheer size of people from Kerala—estimated to be some 2.5 million—working in UAE and the wide sweep of devastation the state has suffered in the floods.

The alleged logic behind Singh’s convention and the Modi government’s adherence to it is that India can meet its own requirements of relief and rehabilitation through domestic efforts. But it isn’t always poverty that drives a nation to accept foreign help, as we can see from the examples of the US, China and Japan among other countries.

In 2005, the United States was swamped with offers of help from countries around the world when it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Condoleezza Rice, then the US Secretary of State, said at that time that contributions from poor countries were being accepted because “it is very valuable for people being able to give to each other and to be able to do so without a sense of means”. She particularly praised Sri Lanka for making a contribution at a time when that country had barely recovered from the previous year’s tsunami.

Among the major donors to the US for Hurricane Katrina relief work were Qatar and UAE which offered $ 100 million each. India sent 25 tonnes of relief materials worth $5 million to the US, which included medicines, tarpaulins, blankets and water purifiers.

But the US exercised discretion and caution in processing each offer of help. In some cases it accepted money but rejected offers of men and material. But it was graceful enough to take help even from many poor countries which were usually at the receiving end of American aid.

Rejecting foreign aid on the ground that India has reached a certain economic states makes little sense and can only be interpreted as a result of false prestige. Acceptance of aid can in no way make India look like a poor country or a weakling. Taking aid from other nations at the time of Katrina hurricane didn’t lower the esteem of the US in the eyes of the world but only enhanced it.

There is also the example of China which sought and accepted international aid when it was struck by the “great Sichuan earthquake” in 2008. Several countries, rich and poor, helped China with aid totalling about $ 0.5 billion. India contributed $5 million worth of blankets, sleeping bags and medicines.

But there may be a way out for Kerala in all this.

While rejecting aid from foreign governments, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said on Wednesday that NRIs, PIOs and entities like foundations were welcome to contribute to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund or the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund.

Even before Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s announcement, the UAE prime minister tweeted that his government and the Indian community will “unite” to offer relief and mentioned a “committee” to do this job.

Reports from UAE indicate that this committee may be headed by Emirates Red Crescent, the local arm of Red Cross, and include representatives of both the Indian community and humanitarian organisations.

It’s very likely that the UAE government may transfer its aid money to this committee, which in turn will contribute it to the Prime Minister’s or the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, in a way that is acceptable to India.

But the question that needs answers is this: Why must donor countries be forced to hunt around for alternative routes to help India instead of doing it in a direct fashion when that’s possible?

(With inputs from agencies)

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