India’s decision to refuse financial aid from other countries for the devastating floods in Kerala is a conscious, well-thought out policy that had been put in place for nearly 15 years.
Much of this had evolved from its self image, growing confidence over its own capacity as well as its rising clout at the international stage as an emerging global power.
Interestingly, this is one area where there is also a broad political consensus among the country’s major political parties.
In response to queries regarding media reports on international assistance for flood relief measures, the government official spokesperson on Wednesday said: “The Government of India deeply appreciates offers from several countries, including from foreign governments, to assist in relief and rehabilitation efforts after the tragic floods."
The spokesperson adds: "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."
Officials, however, point out that while this could be seen as the government's present policy, depending on the scale of future disaster, there is nothing that could prevent India from seeking or recieving all kind of assistance from other countries.
It is also noteworthy that while the government refuses foreign financial assistance, it does not bar many foreign NGOs, other groups and individuals from contributing money and offering other help to private agencies in India, provided they follow and respect the government guidelines.
The United Arab Emirates offered Rs 700 crore, Qatar Rs 35 crore and Maldives Rs 35 lakh to India to deal with the huge loss of life and property during the recent floods in Kerala. But India has politely turned down the offer from all three countries. The government’s decision undoubtedly has given rise to a fresh bout of debate on whether India should have refused the money.
Though part of the offer from the Gulf countries could have come from efforts of the Indian diaspora, some sections have tried to equate the decision to refuse foreign funds for Kerala with political calculations of the BJP-led Narendra Modi government.
These sections accuse the government at the Centre for keeping away foreign financial assistance for Kerala to ensure the state has no option but to rely on PM Modi’s generosity to tide over the massive challenge it would face in the coming days.
But the refusal to accept foreign funds to deal with disaster management and rehabilitation has been a consistent policy of India. This policy evolved over a time and was put in place for the first time by the Congress-led Manmohan Singh government during the December 2004 tsunami that affected the Indian Ocean coast, Tamil Nadu, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and other parts of the country.
Until then India had received funds, and often actively sought them from foreign countries and donors. This was true when India faced a series of natural calamities starting from the 1991 Uttarkashi earthquake, followed by Latur earthquake in 1993, to Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat in 2001, to cyclone in Bengal in 2002 and devastating floods in Bihar two years later.
“Our policy on foreign aid and humanitarian assistance had evolved over the years,” says former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.
According to Mansingh, who not only worked as one of key coordinators between the government and the foreign agencies during the Bhuj earthquake but also with the finance ministry on this critical issue, points to different stages as the country’s policy evolved.
There was a time when India was badly in need of foreign exchange and therefore, also keen to get any financial assistance that came from outside. But later it became more selective about countries from which it would receive aid and also chose areas where foreign assistance was required.
“It was during the NDA government that India decided to be selective in receiving foreign aid,” says Mansingh. Apart from major financial assistance from countries like Japan, India decided to do away with many of the foreign funds that were being offered by others. Part of this was because, most of the aid also came with “ strings attached” as the financial support, irrespective of the amount, was being used by these countries, mostly from the West, to lecture India on human rights, religious freedom or other such issues.
“Whether it was 10,000 dollars or 10 billion dollars, the process one had to go through while getting these aids from each of them was extremely tiresome and time consuming,” says Mansingh, justifying the NDA government’s decision to refuse such assistance from most foreign countries.
Moreover, he points out that during the Bhuj earthquake the coordination between Gujarat administration, the foreign ministry and foreign aid workers worked beautifully because the state government knew exactly the areas where it needed foreign help. For instance, India still lacked advanced equipment such as concrete cutting tools, or specialised bulldozers that good dig deep and remove rubles and heavy pieces of broken building slabs to look for survivors.
This has also been applicable for foreign medical teams arrived to help the earthquake survivors, they were also asked to come with all their equipment and tools that were required to set up make shift hospitals in remote parts complete with uninterrupted power supply for emergency operations etc.
“Over the years, India has developed its own capacity and capability to deal with such disasters. But I am not sure if there is anything wrong in seeking humanitarian assistance from foreign agencies, especially in areas where they have an edge over us,” says Mansingh.
However, much of the decision to “do it ourselves” also has political and diplomatic value and helps the government’s image to the outside world.
The decision to refuse financial aid from outside evolved at a time when India was offering itself as an attractive market and investment destination to foreign investors. In addition, it was also keenly campaigning among member countries for reforms in the United Nations and enlisting support for its place as a permanent member in the UN Security Council. Moreover, much of the world was also looking at India as an emerging global player and were also preparing for the historic nuclear deal for the Indo-United States nuclear deal to accept it as a de facto nuclear weapons power.
“India’s emerging status at the international stage certainly played an important role in the change in the government’s policy on seeking foreign financial and other assistance to deal with natural disasters in the country,” admits Kanwal Sibal, who had succeeded Mansingh as foreign secretary.
Much of this also has with the perception that countries have about India. “Earlier foreign agencies coming in with their sniffer dogs would get a lot of publicity every time they rescued 10 people. But at the same time when our workers and agencies rescued 10,000 people they would often go unnoticed,” he adds.
That image and perception about India both within the country and to the outside world has undergone a significant change over the past decade or so. Today, not only is India regarded as one of the fastest emerging economies, its capabilities in other areas are also taken note of, especially when it sends team to help other countries during disasters.
Moreover, while there is no doubt that the amount of foreign funds offered by the UAE and Qatar were both substantial, they also reflect India’s growing image at the world stage. It is now regarded as a country with which many of the rich members of the Gulf would like to maintain a good relation.
Though the amount of $50,000 offered by Maldives is much less in comparision to what has been offered by the Gulf States, it clearly shows Male’s keenness to put past differences with Delhi on the backburner and put back bilateral ties on track.
Therefore, the debate within different sections in India on the reasons of refusing financial aid from foreign countries may still go on for a while.