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Better proud than safe

Like Myanmar, India had also famously refused international aid and access to foreign aid groups in the Andamans after the devastating tsunami. Neelesh Misra examines...

india Updated: May 22, 2008 23:15 IST
Neelesh Misra

Myanmar’s military dictatorship won’t allow international aid to come into the country that has been left devastated by Cyclone Nargis. The world is rightly outraged. Even junta-friendly India has urged the Myanmarese government to accept global aid. But then, look who’s talking.

India had also famously refused international aid and access to foreign aid groups in the Andamans after the devastating tsunami hit its coastlines in 2004. New Delhi had then stated with a confident voice that it could and would manage its own affairs, thank you very much. But three-and-a-half years after the tsunami, permanent shelters for the homeless in the Andamans have still not been built. Tender notices for the reconstruction projects are still appearing in local newspapers.

One might be tempted to question the comparison made between India, a democratic, regional superpower, and Myanmar, a secretive military-ruled State. But the comparison, which should have been impossible to make, is there for all to see — especially for those suffering, who don’t quite care whether a democratic government or a tin-pot dictatorship is denying them food and shelter. A confident India, with a rising economic prowess, has all the right to say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to outside help. But shouldn’t we be eating at least a slice of the humble pie if thousands are left to suffer for years because of national pride?

The tsunami was not the first time that India was hit by a natural disaster of such proportions. More importantly, it also won’t be the last time. India needs to firm up its ‘rising power’ pride by actions that signify that it can ‘do it alone’. In the Andamans, almost 10,000 permanent shelters were to be built in the archipelago where 7,450 people died. A total of 16,400 people were killed across Indian coastlines. Construction has not even begun on more than 80 per cent of the houses. In the rest, the basic structure is yet to be built — and this according to the government’s own project report that was made public at the end of February. “In the last seven days, I have seen at least three tenders floated for the construction of permanent shelters,” says Samir Acharya who heads the Society of Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, the region’s leading voluntary group. “We are still at that stage.”

Tamil Nadu, the other area wracked by the tsunami, fares only slightly better — 35,700 homes have been completed by the government and voluntary groups, with some 17,600 remaining to be completed and most of them yet to be started.

India, which sent aid to other countries after the 2004 tsunami, and to Pakistan after the Kashmir earthquake, furiously protected its turf after the two disasters — even banning journalists for a long time except for government-chaperoned trips. Things were so frustrating for international aid workers in the days immediately after the tsunami that a small group anonymously sat at a press conference with the region’s administrator and pleaded to know why they were not being allowed to help. The local chapter of the Red Cross complained to the lieutenant-governor that material marked for the organisation had been ‘hijacked’ by the administration. When boxes of aid material arrived in Port Blair by ship and air, they were taken away by government officials.

Captains of boats were threatened with tough action if they took any aid workers or journalists around. A few reporters tried to get on to boats wearing dirty T-shirts to mix in with the homeless victims. They were caught and offloaded. Sounds mighty familiar, doesn’t it?

“India has done the same thing in the past that Myanmar is doing now. It is a false sense of pride — and probably the government does not want to probe into its own affairs,” says Acharya.

A recent Right to Information petition filed from Chhattisgarh unravelled how more than Rs 12 crore donated to the Prime Minister’s fund for victims of the tsunami and the Kashmir earthquake were never received. After the earthquake, foreign aid agencies were a no-no, despite most of them working in the area for years. Blankets were not distributed on Durga Puja, which fell a few days after day of the earthquake, because it was a government holiday. Officials stuck religiously at a time of death and destruction to the red mark on the calendar. “We all tried desperately to buy tents after the earthquake. But all the tent manufacturers told us there were orders not to sell to anyone but the government during that time,” says Acharya. All this was part of a tedious ‘re-tendering’ process after two companies contracted to build homes never completed them.

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, the United States had politely but firmly said no to international aid coming into New Orleans. But the magnitude of the calamity forced Washington to lift any embargo. Perhaps, India could consider doing what the Myanmar junta won’t — unless, of course, it can keep its promises that it hasn’t for the last three-and-a-half years.