Editorial

Editorial

Unwarranted rejection of foreign aid

The government of india’s rejection of foreign aid for the estimated 2.7 million Indian victims of the giant tsunami tidal waves which battered the eastern coastline causing widespread death and destruction in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Pondicherry and Andaman & Nicobar Islands on December 26, is a monumental blunder. Indeed it is the typical reaction of India’s notoriously insensitive bureaucracy which has become immune to the mind-boggling troubles and travails of the persistently neglected majority at the base of the social pyramid. As a consequence India’s share of the $3 billion (Rs.13,500 crore) assistance in terms of food, medicine and relief supplies has been allocated to other — admittedly more seriously affected — nations.

The Union government’s knee-jerk refusal of bona fide offers of food and relief materials from affluent western nations was probably driven by the illusory belief that contemporary India with its huge foreign exchange reserves, 6 percent plus annual rate of GDP growth and industrial capability has the resources and knowhow to attend to the rescue and rehabilitation needs of the estimated 540,000 households in India whose future has been shattered by the 20 ft. high waves travelling at 750 kmph. This is particularly ironic given that the repeatedly reiterated top priority in the prime minister’s development agenda is improvement of quality of governance. Implicit in this agenda is an admission that the Union and state governments don’t possess the administrative capability to manage the fallout of a disaster of this scale and magnitude — an admission not uninfluenced by botched relief operations during the Latur (1993) and Gujarat (2001) earthquakes.

Against this backdrop, it is instructive to speculate about deeper considerations which could have prompted the Union government’s refusal to accept foreign help for littoral India’s tsunami victims. Quite obviously one of them is to communicate a message to the world that India is no longer an underdeveloped nation dependent upon foreign largesse and that it has sufficient capability to take care of its own people. Presumably the communication of this message is not unconnected with India’s bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations which would transform it into a superpower.

While such vaulting ambition may strike a responsive chord within post-liberalisation India’s greedy and insensitive new middle class, until and unless it rectifies the status of its 300 million comprehensively illiterate citizens scratching out pathetic lives on less than $1 per day, India will never be acknowledged as a superpower. Therefore the rejection of foreign aid for the poor and socially disadvantaged who have borne the brunt of tsunami damage, is yet another manifestation of the notorious neta-babu mindset which equates its own dubious prosperity with the well-being of the nation.

Moreover a second fallacy upon which the rejection of foreign help is based is that external aid is exclusively of supplies and materials. Yet the truth is that it also includes intangibles such as aid distribution systems and expertise. As the depressing number of aid disbursement and distribution scandals coming to light indicate, the Central and state governments just don’t possess the capability to compensate and rehabilitate the millions of poor fishermen and other disadvantaged groups whose lives have been shattered by the waterworld tragedy of December 26.

State mandated Tsunami in Mumbai

T
he great tsunami disaster which devastated much of
Asia and the eastern coast of India killing over 10,000 people in this country destroying the livelihoods of over 540,000 households, was replicated by a man-made tsunami on India’s west coast round about the same time. Over three painful weeks in December, bulldozers and demolition men of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) acting on the orders of the government of Maharashtra, flattened the homes and hutments of an estimated 70,000 families living in several slum habitations in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital.

And though the loss of lives and livelihoods of the victims of the tsunami which originated in Sumatra (Indonesia) resulted in an unprecedented outpouring of national grief and charity, the man-made tsunami, originating in Mantralaya which devastated the homes and livelihoods of poor slum-dwellers in India’s richest city, failed to elicit any notable display of sympathy or grief. Indeed the dominant sentiment of post-liberalisation India’s new shopping mall-muddled middle class was — and is — supportive of the narrow legal argument of BMC that the slum dwellers were unauthorised occupiers of government land, mere squatters.

This dominant middle class sentiment is based upon erroneous premises and needs correction in the interests of justice, equity and fair play. For a start, it needs to be remembered that post-independence India is a centrally planned economy with a 28,000-strong Planning Commission in New Delhi and counterparts in state capitals. That being so, mass rural migration into the cities and/ or the huge housing backlog estimated at 60 million homes countrywide, should never have happened. The nation’s omniscient central planners were perfectly aware of the 2-3 percent net annual accretion to the population. Therefore they could have easily calculated the number of titled land sites and homes required by the people and made provision to build them for the poor. Not only did the Planning Commission and the Central and state governments fail do so, for over half a century they debarred private sector companies and entrepreneurs from the mass housing industry. Nor did they permit home loans or micro finance to the general public which could have enabled the poor to build their own houses, until very recently.

In a genuine democracy and a centrally planned one at that, the principles of natural justice mandate that no person should be deprived or dispossessed of his shelter without satisfactory provision of alternative accommodation. It’s critical to grasp the important point that state violence can also be illegal and in violation of law. It’s another matter that central planners and government who have lumbered the Indian economy with the largest housing shortage worldwide, have also neglected education (which would have enabled the poor to become aware of their rights) and the legal system which denies the poor access to forums of justice.

The plain reality is that multiplication of urban slum habitations and continuous migration of perennially short-changed farmers into the nation’s ill-managed cites, are rooted in the failure of government policies and central planning in particular. Therefore when governments inflict arbitrary and impatient violence upon the weak and powerless victims of government failure and neglect, right-thinking citizens need to rise to their defence to show such governments their place. The quintessence of democratic governance is that elected administrations accord special respect to the socially weak and underprivileged, rather than violently dispossess them of their meagre property.