Invisible Aid and Visible Ado

Invisible Aid and Visible Ado

The occurrence of disasters and the management of their aftermath are serious matters with grave implications There is no place for levity in...

The occurrence of disasters and the management of their aftermath are serious matters with grave implications. There is no place for levity in discussions relating to them. Still, one cannot but discern an element of farce in the manner in which positions are being taken, and statements bandied about foreign aid, in respect of Kerala floods.

India has steadfastly been refusing foreign aid since, in the year 2004, the central government took a clear stand on this issue. Surely, the Government of Kerala, headed by Pinarayi Vijayan, a veteran politician, must know this.

Therefore, when an offer of aid from the UAE (United Arab Emirates) was conveyed through a businessman, his government ought to have wondered about the feasibility of accepting it within the ambit of the existing policy. The European Union was able to contribute €1,90,000, through the Indian Red Cross Society, for immediate relief assistance, in compliance with the extant rules.

The Chief Minister, however, chose to go public through a tweet, thanking the donors, also revealing the name of Yusuff Ali, UAE-based Malayalee businessman who had arranged the offer. Is it not interesting how tweets by political leaders are crowding out formal statements of governments, leaving us confused? That the CM neglected to check the veracity of the same can perhaps be put down to the happiness he felt, given the need for such assistance.

But the Government of India, however, had ample time to verify and find that there was, in fact, no such offer. It could then have put out a statement to that effect, adding that its policy was not to accept such offers. It, however, chose merely to reiterate the policy, without mention of non-existence of an offer.

Unsurprisingly, Kerala government felt that a handsome gesture of the government of UAE was being objected to unreasonably by the Government of India. Soon, much to the embarrassment of the Kerala government, the UAE Ambassador to India clarified the situation saying, in effect, that an assessment of the relief needed was going on, that a “National Emergency Committee” had been constituted to coordinate with the federal authorities to work with various agencies to provide humanitarian assistance, and adding that their government was fully aware of the rules that govern financial aid by other countries to India.

In an effort to overcome the adverse public reaction to the developments, Vijayan told the media that Yusuff had confirmed that the President of UAE had discussed the matter with Prime Minister Modi and, therefore, it was for the Centre to decide on the offer, adding that the offer should be accepted. Clearly this amounted to shifting the blame, in the event the acceptance of the offer did not materialise, squarely to the Prime Minister.

Needless to say this is less than fair. It is, after all, well-known that overseas assistance, in the phases of rescue and relief in the aftermath of disasters, is something India has been declining as a matter of settled policy – a position concretised in the shape given to the rules framed under the Disaster Management act 2005. This columnist was functioning as a Member of NDMA at that time and is in a position to confirm that this, indeed, was the situation.

Prior to 2004, India had accepted such offers of aid including for the Uttarkashi earthquake (1991), Latur earthquake (1993), and Bihar floods (July 2004) among others. In 2004, the government finalised a disaster aid policy, in the wake of the tsunami that struck, the coast of Tamil Nadu and Andaman & Nicobar Island. The Prime Minister (also Chairman ex officio of the National Disaster Management Authority) {NDMA} said, “We feel we can cope with the situation on our own and will take their help if needed.” That settled the policy and Delhi has since been following it.

The question whether to adhere to the old policy or not, came up for consideration within NDMA, which felt that it was a question of self-respect, that India needed to show the world its ability to cope with the immediate aftermath of disasters. It was also felt that accepting aid from one government would open the floodgates for others, and creating diplomatically problems in refusing it from some while accepting it from others.

It was therefore decided that, in matters relating to provision of immediate rescue and relief measures, the country should send a clear signal that it is capable of managing that phase with its own resources, in terms of men, material and funds. Bilateral or international assistance could be considered afterwards – for relief rehabilitation, reconstruction etc.

The Ministry of Home Affairs book on "Disaster Management in India" clearly states: ‘The present policy of government of India is to not issue a formal appeal on behalf of the government, either directly or through any other agency, to attract relief. However, relief donated on a voluntary basis are accepted and acknowledged as a sign of international solidarity.

There is no objection to NGO’s issuing appeals for donations provided it is clear that the appeals are not at the instance of the Government of India. In the case of UN organizations and agencies like OCHA {Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs} such appeals would imply endorsement by member countries and they are advised against appeals for international assistance.”

The National Disaster Management Plan, 2016, while reiterating this stand, adds, “...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.”

Since there is a provision for central government to consider accepting the offer, Vijayan is appealing to GOI to take a positive decision and accept UAE offer by making an exception to prevailing practice. "UAE cannot be considered as any other nation, as their rulers have underlined. Indians, especially Keralites, have contributed immensely in their nation-building,” he argues.

Former diplomats and officials too have divergent views on the subject. I, for one, I am totally in favour of the stand taken by the central government. Over the last 14 years, India had declined financial assistance from countries such as the USA, Japan and Russia during the Kashmir earthquake of 2005, Uttarakhand floods of 2013, and Kashmir floods in 2014. And we need not make exception in case of a particular state and particular donor country. That would open a Pandora's Box.

Having said that, however, it is necessary to emphasise the need for all concerned, including, of course, the central government to spare no effort to ensure that prompt and full assistance is made available to the Kerala state government in this hour of crisis. The point being made is that we do not need a helping hand from outside to fulfil this important obligation, at this stage.

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