Indian government says no to foreign aid, triggering domestic debate

Volunteers collect household items in the lawn of a residential house before cleaning it, following floods in Kuttanad, Alappuzha district, in the southern state of Kerala, India, on Aug 28, 2018.
Volunteers collect household items in the lawn of a residential house before cleaning it, following floods in Kuttanad, Alappuzha district, in the southern state of Kerala, India, on Aug 28, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - Debate on whether India should or should not accept foreign aid in times of crisis has raged on in the wake of devastating floods in Kerala. The Indian government has refused to accept offers of monetary help, angering many in the southern state as it struggles with rehabilitation work.

Kerala this month was hit by heavy monsoon rains, causing floods in which more than 400 people died. More than 2,600 villages were inundated, leading to a massive rescue and relief effort that saw a million people housed in relief centres across the state after the floods.

The Kerala government has estimated that the state, among India's more prosperous with a 94 per cent literacy rate, needed more than 20 billion rupees (S$388 million) to rebuild everything from houses to roads and bridges.

The federal government has refused offers of foreign aid from countries like Qatar, saying this is in line with existing policy, and that the country will tackle the Kerala floods "through domestic efforts".

Within Kerala there is anger that the federal government, which has offered only 5 billion rupees to begin with, has refused foreign aid at a time when the people of Kerala are struggling to get back on their feet.

Mr Joji Cherien, a village council member from Chengannur, one of the worst affected areas in the floods, said conditions on the ground remained tough.

"People are struggling. People are going back to their houses and finding that their electronics have been destroyed. Condition is very pathetic," said Mr Cherien.

 
 
 

"We hope we can survive this. We have to rebuild our state. We need the money. If we can get it from other countries, why should it not be taken?"

Politicians from the state said national pride should not come at the expense of having money for rehabilitation efforts, with Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac calling the federal government's policy not to take foreign aid a "dog in the manger" policy.

Parliament's Upper House MP Binoy Viswam, who is from Kerala, on Monday asked the Supreme Court to intervene and order the government to accept foreign aid.

Kerala is run by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) while the federal government is run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Offers for help for Kerala have come from the Gulf countries such as Qatar, which has reportedly offered US$5 million (S$6.8 million), and United Arab Emirates, which has offered help but did not spell out the amount.

Kerala has a special bond with the Gulf. Of the 7 million Indians working in the Gulf countries, more than 2.5 million are from the southern state. Annually, all Indians working in the Gulf contribute US$40 billion in remittances and their contributions are tied to the local economy.

The Maldives has offered 3.5 million rupees.

Thailand's ambassador to India Chutintorn Sam Gongsakdi tweeted last week that Delhi had refused foreign assistance: "Informally informed with regret that the Government of India is not accepting overseas donations for Kerala flood relief."

Those who support the policy that India should not accept foreign aid said it was a matter of national pride for India to be self-sufficient and manage on its own.

Others have wondered why India cannot accept foreign help.

"Do We Have Ample Funds for Kerala? No! Then Why Deny Foreign Aid?," asked an opinion piece headline on The Quint website.

While the federal government has said it will release more domestic funds for the state, foreign policy analysts said that exceptions should be made to the policy.

The government is seen to be continuing the policy set by the previous government led by then-prime minister Manmohan Singh, who had refused to accept foreign aid and managed with domestic funds during the 2004 tsunami which devastated coastal parts of Tamil Nadu and Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

"There should be a distinction between developmental assistance which is regulated, and humanitarian assistance which is a spontaneous reaction of the international community to international disasters like a flood, famine or tsunami. The government should not adopt a rigid view," said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

Arab expert Zikrur Rahman said: "It is a matter of pride that we are a strong economy and we shouldn't take aid. But this time the state government wanted the money and the central (federal) government didn't. This has created concern that politics is being played. If the government has the money they should immediately release it."

He added: "India can also give in some other way to some other countries. They are not doing it because India is poor. The message is, we share your pain."

But others said that it was the prerogative of the Indian government.

"The Indian government has adequate funds to address both emergency relief and long-term recovery of Kerala after the flood disaster. While acknowledging gracious offers of help from foreign governments, this is the Indian government's job, which it must do and be seen to do," said Mr Nitin Pai, director of Takshashila Institution, a non-profit organisation.