The dispute over accepting aid from foreign governments for flood-hit Kerala raises several questions.
On August 21, the Kerala Chief Minister made a mention of an offer from the UAE in his daily press briefing. The following day, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, Raveesh Kumar, announced that the offer was not being accepted. Before the statement, there was no discussion with the state government. Neither was the opinion of the state even sought. This is a reflection of the utter insensitivity of the central government. But even more, it is an undermining of the federal framework of the constitution. The Centre is duty bound to consult the state government on matters directly affecting the state, instead of making arbitrary announcements.
The MEA (Ministry of External Affairs)spokesperson said: "The Government of India deeply appreciates offers from several countries including from foreign governments to assist in relief and rehabilitation efforts. In line with existing policy government is committed to meeting the requirements through domestic efforts."
What is the existing policy and where and how was it decided?
Spokespersons of the government have told the media that the policy was framed by the Manmohan Singh government when offers of help were made in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. According to a recent tweet by then National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, who was earlier Foreign Secretary, the policy framed was "to not accept foreign participation in relief but accept it for long term rehabilitation case by case. No rescue teams needing hand-holding and interpretation but yes to help rebuilding houses, bridges, roads etc." In any case,the situation at the time of the tsunami was entirely different, with other countries in the region like Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka even more severely affected than India.
The foreign ministry's statement at the time specifically mentions that India did not require assistance in rescue and relief but it could for long term reconstruction. The MEA document titled "Bridging the Ocean December 2004 to January 2005" says: "Overseas aid should be channeled to those countries that need it more...however India has said that it would go back to donor countries if and when necessary. This is a logical distribution of available aid and a pragmatic acknowledgement of the long hard road to rehabilitation that lies ahead when aid from other countries may become necessary." This is quite different from what the present government claims was the UPA government's policy.
More relevant to the present situation, the government has a National Disaster Management Plan, which was released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on May 16, 2016. On the issue of foreign assistance, it stated: "As a matter of policy, the government of India does not issue any appeal for foreign assistance in the wake of a disaster.However, 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 Ministry of Home Affairs is required to coordinate with the Ministry of External Affairs, which is primarily responsible for reviewing foreign offers of assistance and channelising the same. In consultation with the concerned State Government, the MHA will assess the response requirements that the foreign teams can provide."
If there is any existing policy in the public domain, it is this disaster management plan. Nowhere does it say that no foreign assistance will be accepted.
Thus neither the policy during the tsunami nor the disaster management plan bar taking foreign assistance. The central government and the MEA spokesperson are misleading the country on both counts, as far as the existing policy is concerned.
Policy cannot be equated with law. A law is enacted by parliament and cannot be changed without parliament's approval. The government can make changes to policy according to requirement. In this case, even parliament was not consulted. The Kerala assembly is meeting in a special session on August 30. Will its opinion be taken into account by the government of India?
The existing policy on foreign assistance is that on a host of other projects and programmes, the Modi Government does take foreign assistance, including direct cash grants.
Between 2014 and 2018, according to budget papers,the government received around Rs 8,000 crore in external assistance. It also accepts assistance for government projects including for Swachh Bharat.
If it is alright to accept assistance for such projects, then why the double standards in accepting assistance for the reconstruction of a state devastated by a natural calamity?
The government's unofficial spokespersons have supported the decision on the argument that India as an "emerging power" cannot afford to be seen as taking aid. "Changing India's image for the world has been an ongoing national project". "India is now an aid giver, not an aid taker" - and so on - are some of the comments supporting the central government's position. Does accepting voluntarily offered help made as a gesture of solidarity and friendship from a friendly country dent a nation's image?
When US was battling Hurricane Katrina, 150 countries offered help, which included cash as well as materials and oil aid. Among the donors was the UAE, which donated 100 million dollars, the same amount it is offering to India today. Qatar donated 35 million dollars. The US accepted some of the aid offered even from poorer countries like Bangladesh and Nigeria. Did this affect the "image" of the US? On the contrary, US officials claimed that such relief offers were proof of respect for the US across the world! When China accepted international aid after the horrific Sichuan earthquake in 2008, in which reportedly 65,000 people lost their lives, was their image affected? Media reported at that time that China appealed for help and received more than 158 million dollars in cash donations apart from materials and other aid. This included 50 million dollars from Saudi Arabia.
This narrative that for a "superpower" like India to take assistance would damage its standing in the community of nations is simply not true. False pride masquerading as "nationalism" cannot serve India's interests. In fact, the refusal of the government to accept the UAE offer can also be taken as being churlish.
According to a preliminary assessment by the Kerala government, rebuilding and rehabilitation will require a minimum of Rs 20,000 crore. For immediate rehabilitation and to restore essential communication and electricity connections among other things, around Rs 2,600 crore was required. This was the amount requested from the central government. So far, only Rs 600 crore has been sent. Does this reflect the "government's commitment to meet requirements through domestic efforts", as stated by the MEA?
The people of Kerala and across the country can draw their own conclusion.
The rebuilding of Kerala requires foresight as well as cooperation and coordination between the central and state governments. In the first phase of dealing with the disaster, the phase of rescue and immediate relief, this cooperation and coordination was an important factor in the successful efforts to contain and control the damage.
It will indeed be a sad day for the country if the central government allows narrow political considerations to cloud its constitutional duty to consult and extend full assistance to the efforts of the government of Kerala to meet the unprecedented challenges ahead.
Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.
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