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Refusing foreign aid for Kerala is churlish and narcissistic, writes Barkha Dutt

India wanted to assert its self reliance; the scale of its economy and the end of any donor-driven influence. But India is not going around asking anyone for help; the offers have come from other nations on their own.

columns Updated: Aug 25, 2018 17:30 IST
Kerala floods,UAE,Foreign aid
Volunteers at an aid distribution centre inside a stadium in Kochi, Kerala, August 19(REUTERS)

There is a very thin line that separates pride from insecurity and self-confidence from arrogance. India has badly blurred those lines with a churlish and narcissistic response to the question of foreign aid for relief and reconstruction in Kerala.

Let’s set aside the fact that there is a degree of confusion over which country has offered how much. Let’s not focus only on the fact that after all the brouhaha, the UAE Ambassador to India says the figure of a Rs 700 crores aid package is imprecise because his country is still assessing details. Let’s debate this on principle.

What we do know for sure — and the Thailand envoy went public with this on social media — is that the government has let it be known that any such offer from any country will be politely refused.

Frankly, this is a small-minded, paranoid and xenophobic attitude. Especially because Kerala needs an estimated Rs 2,600 crores to repair itself after the devastation of the deluge; so far it has received only Rs 600 crores from the Centre with the promise of more. Contrast this with the large-hearted spirit of a state where the Malayalis rose as one in this moment of crisis, and it makes even less sense. Kerala’s heroic fisherfolk saved at least 7,000 lives and then turned down the offer of monetary compensation from the chief minister’s office. They must struggle to make sense of what surely is only a kind of petty and egotistical arrogance. That the Manmohan Singh government did the same in 2004 after the tsunami that wrecked Tamil Nadu does not make this better. The Congress was wrong then and the BJP is wrong now.

There is also the staggering hypocrisy of it all. India’s political parties who disagree on everything else conveniently united on passing a legislation that makes it easier for them to receive foreign funds to bankroll their electoral activities and escape scrutiny while doing so. If it doesn’t hurt India’s self-respect and self-image as a nation to have outside money filter into its core democratic process, with what face can its political parties object to foreign aid during a natural calamity? Surely, if this is all about esteem and strength, the stakes are way higher when it comes to the elections? What sort of nation would rebuff the ‘foreign hand’ if it reaches out in compassion, but permit corporates based abroad to donate to its politics? Yes political funding is not permitted from the governments of other countries, but in allowing it from individuals and business houses aren’t you skewing the moral principles of the same argument?

I can understand that as an emerging power seeking its rightful place on the global stage, India wanted to assert its self-reliance, the scale of its economy and the end of any donor-driven influence. But India is not going around asking anyone for help; the offers have come from other nations on their own. And the National Disaster Management Plan clearly leaves elbow room for voluntary offers and goodwill gestures that come from other countries.

In any case India itself has played the role of aid-giver when disasters and catastrophes have struck elsewhere. In 2005, India sent relief material to the United States of America in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. India did the same after the Sichuan earthquake in China in 2008. Are the US or China diminished in any manner by being the recipients of goodwill help from countries rich and poor and big and small? Have they lost any of their clout and power in the world arena? In fact after the hurricane, America explained that part of the logic in accepting aid from even smaller countries was to permit a spirit of community and kinship across borders.

Yes, India has had to struggle to battle western stereotypes. Yes, we have had to battle the clichés that have previously defined us through postcards of poverty. ‘Cows on the street’ and ‘fakirs in saffron’ are not the visual lens through which we see ourselves. But by rebuffing well-intentioned help we are displaying a twisted and meaningless machismo. And one that is coming at the price of our own people. In fact, if we were truly a confident country and if we were truly at ease in our own skin, none of this would even be an issue.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 24, 2018 19:21 IST