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In Nepal earthquake aftermath, India’s relief draws global attention

A defence ministry handout shows teams from the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) and Indian Air Force material on their way to earthquake-hit Nepal. Indian planes were the first to land in Kathmandu with water, food, earthmoving equipment, tents, blankets, mobile hospitals, specialized rescue teams and specialized manpower to help restore electricity supply—a combination of rescue and relief. Photo: AFPPremium
A defence ministry handout shows teams from the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) and Indian Air Force material on their way to earthquake-hit Nepal. Indian planes were the first to land in Kathmandu with water, food, earthmoving equipment, tents, blankets, mobile hospitals, specialized rescue teams and specialized manpower to help restore electricity supply—a combination of rescue and relief. Photo: AFP

India's swift leadership action in aid of Nepal, where the toll from the 25 April earthquake may well reach 10,000, has prompted global speculation on whether the effort is part of disaster diplomacy

It used to be called “aid diplomacy" in the Cold War years. The idea was that if you as a rich nation gave a poor, Third-World country some of your taxpayers’ dollars, then that recipient would forever be grateful to you, jump into your global camp (the world was divided in two, remember) and stay there. Importantly, it would then buy your goods and services.

It was known as tied aid.

Today, the Cold War is over. Technology has ended death by starvation in many parts of the world (not malnourishment though). Market-led reforms have put the onus of development on private companies, rather than Western governments, whose coffers in any case are emptying. Despite greater income inequality within many nations, the number of poor has fallen, dramatically in some places. And the income gap between nations is narrowing.

All of this has diminished the value of aid. What’s taken its place? It’s disaster diplomacy.

This is the somewhat intriguing idea that you can project your soft power best by projecting your military power. Not by warfare, bombardment or putting boots on the ground, but by harnessing your hardware for the welfare of people in poor countries locked in situations of conflict or natural disaster.

India’s swift leadership action in aid of Nepal, the landlocked Himalayan nation where the toll from the 25 April earthquake may well reach 10,000, has prompted global speculation on whether or not the effort is part of disaster diplomacy, a race with China. Not India alone, everybody is doing it—China, the US, some 30 nations all told, are in Nepal.

But there’s a significant difference between the motives of India and the rest of the pack.

For India, which has centuries of deep historical, cultural and people-to-people ties with Nepal, helping out—in the words of Indian foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar—was a “gut reaction". It had nothing to do with China and its assistance to Nepal, he told CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour.

He is right to a large extent. Economic and people-to-people contacts have deepened massively over the years between the two nations. It is hard to think of a neighbourhood in Delhi that is not serviced by Nepalis.

There’s mutual economic inter-dependence, inter-marriage between Nepalis and Indians, and a huge economy fuelled by migration. It is quite likely that every neighbourhood in India’s capital city has someone or the other who has been affected by the tragedy in Nepal.

Indian planes were the first to land in Kathmandu with water, food, earthmoving equipment, tents, blankets, mobile hospitals, specialized rescue teams and specialized manpower to help restore electricity supply—a combination of rescue and relief. Increasingly, as Nepal’s only airport gets crowded with flights from other nations, India has been moving most of its material by road to Nepal.

National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) teams, a home ministry force, have fanned out beyond Kathmandu to try and reach wrecked villages and hamlets lying in inaccessible and remote parts.

Military helicopters have conducted reconnaissance flights, and what they report about the extent of the devastation is said to be pretty grim.

Alongside, showing his personal involvement in the relief effort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a series of tweets on 27 April, thanked the NDRF teams, armed forces, doctors, volunteers, “enthusiastic youngsters", state governments that were helping out, the media (“they are bravely covering the disaster from the ground"), and saluted “the resilience of our sisters & brothers in Nepal & parts of India, for their courage in the face of disaster".

As to those who thanked him, he tweeted, “Real thanks should be to our great culture, which teaches us ‘Seva Parmo Dharma’" (Sanskrit for ‘It’s the highest duty to serve others.’)

Jaishankar is keen to get the message across that India’s assistance should not be characterized as “diplomacy".

“I think here you had a monumental tragedy, and we had a capability to respond. Prime Minister Modi is a person who makes decisions decisively and when this happened he tasked the government machinery to get into action and that’s really what you saw—an instinctive, heartfelt response," Jaishankar told Amanpour.

He also swiftly rejected suggestions India was in a race with China to rush aid to Nepal, a strategically important nation (it abuts Tibet on the one hand, and is a source of hydropower on the other).

“We are really doing in there what you’d do with a member of your family. The entire world should try to help," Jaishankar said.

“We are doing our best not because there is any diplomacy involved—forgive me for putting it so bluntly—but because really there are people desperately in need of help. I would not look at it as policy at all. I think it’s a gut reaction response to a great human tragedy."

Nevertheless, the Indian media has dutifully highlighted how many foreign nationals have been rescued by Indian teams in Nepal, just as it did when India launched a naval operation to bring back more than 4,700 Indians trapped in the Yemen conflict. The Indian Navy rescued 1,947 non-Indians from 48 countries in Yemen, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj told Parliament to thumps of approval from other members.

If this is indeed a show of soft power, then India ought to prepare itself for extending ever greater assistance in ever bigger numbers: according to data from the Emergency Events Database, run by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Belgium, across the world, there were 40 natural disaster in 1960. This number increased to 528 in 2000 and 290 in 2014.

The numbers for Asia were: 22 in 1960, 195 in 2000 and 126 in 2014. Better preparedness may be partly responsible for falling death tolls—1.5 million in 1965 to 328,000 in 2010 to 22,000 in 2013.

India should be aware that greater involvement in disaster relief can bring not only grateful thanks, but also closer international interest. China’s response to typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines in 2013 was thought to be slow and stingy because of territorial disputes.

Haiyan was one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, and some 6,300 people perished in the Philippines alone.

The Associated Press news agency noted in a report that China, the world’s second largest economy, pledged less than $2 million in cash and material to the Philippines, compared with $20 million by the US—and $2.7 million by Ikea, the Swedish furniture maker.

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