Home / Politics / Policy /  Kerala, Centre at odds over accepting foreign aid over floods

New Delhi: India’s decision not to accept foreign aid in the wake of the Kerala floods seems to be putting the central and state governments at odds over the issue.

With the floods — billed the worst in a century — making news within India and abroad, there have been offers of help coming in, most notably from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar besides the Maldives. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the vice-president of the UAE, went on Twitter to appeal to the residents of the Emirates — in English, Malayalam and Arabic — to help the people of Kerala.

The Indian government on its part has politely refused all offers, signalling to the world that it appreciates the gesture from the international community. New Delhi sent a clear message to all its embassies and missions abroad on Monday directing them to indicate to their host countries that India would be able to meet the challenge through domestic resources, according to assessments made at present, two people familiar with the developments said. This was in line with a policy followed since 2004, when India’s east coast was struck by giant tsunami waves triggered by a massive quake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, one of them pointed out. Despite India itself being badly affected by the tsunami —houses and buildings razed and almost 10,000 people dead — Indian naval ships were quickly deployed to countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives to provide assistance to the governments there. Again in 2013, when Uttarakhand was ravaged by flash floods and landslides triggered by heavy monsoon rains, India refused help from abroad, the first person cited above said.

Precedents notwithstanding, in the present situation, the Kerala government seems to be holding a different view.

“National Disaster Management Plan Chapter 9 on international cooperation accepts that in time of severe calamity voluntary aid given by a foreign gov can be accepted. Still if Union Gov chooses to adopt a negative stance towards the offer made by the UAE gov they should compensate Kerala," said a Twitter post by Thomas Issac, Kerala’s Finance Minister, on Wednesday.

“We asked Union Gov for financial support of 2,200 Cr; they grant us a precious 600 Cr. We make no request to any foreign gov but UAE gov voluntarily offer 700 Cr. No, says Union gov, it is below our dignity to accept foreign aid. This is a dog in the manger policy," he said in another post.

Issac’s view found resonance with that of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan with the latter telling the Indian Express newspaper that the UAE “cannot be considered as any other nation" as “Indians, especially Keralites, have contributed immensely in their nation building." Indeed, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid had in his Twitter post on Saturday recalled the special link between Kerala and the UAE, stating that “the people of Kerala have always been and are still part of our success story in the UAE" as he made his appeal for aid from UAE residents.

On Wednesday, addressing a press conference, Vijayan said that the “PM himself welcomed the UAE aid on Twitter when it was announced." The reference was to a post by Modi over the weekend in which the prime minister said: “A big thanks to @hhshkmohd for his gracious offer to support people of Kerala during this difficult time. His concern reflects the special ties between governments and people of India and UAE." Significantly, it made no mention of any aid.

“It is clear from the May 2016 national policy on disaster management that if the national government of another country voluntarily offers assistance as a goodwill in solidarity with the victims it can be accepted," Vijayan told reporters at the press conference. “But some reports have come out pointing out a few issues. We will look into it. Will discuss with the Prime Minister if the need arises," he added.

Indeed, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid had in a Twitter post on Saturday recalled the special link between the state of Kerala and the UAE, stating that “the people of Kerala have always been and are still part of our success story in the UAE" as he made his appeal for aid from UAE residents.

India undertook a major review of its foreign aid policy in 1999 when then Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was in power. Then Finance Minister Jaswant Singh reviewed India’s development assistance programmes and decided to prune the list of donors -- Japan for example was kept on the list while several European countries were deleted. However, in the same year, when Odisha was struck by a super cyclone, India accepted assistance from abroad including the European Union.

In 2001, when a massive earthquake struck Bhuj in Gujarat, the then BJP government was selective in its acceptance of aid from the international community, recalled former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh. “New Delhi accepted aid that was wanted by the state government," he said adding that India had refused medicines, for example, deeming it had enough supplies at home to meet the demands.

In 2004, when the tsunami struck, New Delhi took a considered view not to accept humanitarian aid, said a third person familiar with the development. “One of the reasons was that India was looking at itself as a regional power and at a role as security and assistance provider besides an emerging economy. Against this backdrop, the decision was that New Delhi would cope with the aftermath of the tsunami using its own resources and accept aid only if it found it couldn’t," the third person cited above said.

In 2013, when flash floods and landslides affected Uttarakhand, the then Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin when asked about India accepting foreign aid said: “As a general policy in case of rescue and relief operations, we have followed the practice that we have adequate ability to respond to emergency requirements." He had however added that if India needed assistance in reconstruction, New Delhi would “examine how they fit into the broader plan in terms of rehabilitation and reconstruction in the region and take a call at that stage."

According to Mansingh, given that the floods in Kerala were the worst in a century, the central government should take a decision after taking inputs from the state government.

“There are issues like sanitation, provision of drinking water in camps. These things need to taken care of and the central government has to assess whether our machinery can handle it. In the case of the Gujarat earthquake, we refused medicines and doctors from some countries. But we accepted an offer of medical assistance from Israel which set up field hospitals in the area and these rendered a great service. The reason for accepting assistance from Israel was that their medical units were self-sufficient, they had all the emergency equipment they needed, including electricity generators. Units from other countries could have asked for operating facilities, electricity generators that the local administration at that time would have found it difficult to give. So the Israeli offer was accepted," he said.

“I don’t think we should reject an offer as a matter of policy but see what the offer is and finetune our decision accordingly," Mansingh said.

Nidheesh MK contributed to this report.

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