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To aid or not to aid flood-hit Pakistan

The Pakistan government, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, as also army chief General Bajwa have independently appealed for aid.

HARSHA KAKAR |

Pakistan is experiencing its worst floods in history. The government claims that over 1,200 people have lost their lives. The UN estimates that 33 million have been affected, of which around 450,000 are displaced and 6.4 million are in dire need of humanitarian aid. Over 1,000 health facilities have been damaged. The British High Commissioner to Islamabad stated, “The evidence I am seeing on ground is that this level of impact is unprecedented.”

Pakistan and the UN launched a joint aid appeal for $160 million. Many nations have contributed. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, in his appeal stated, “Pakistan is awash in suffering. The Pakistani people are facing a monsoon on steroids — the relentless impact of epochal levels of rain and flooding.” Turkey, UAE, Qatar, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, and China are amongst nations that have rushed material aid to Pakistan.

The Pakistan government, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, as also army chief General Bajwa have independently appealed for aid. Imran Khan in an international telethon raised Pakistani Rs 5 billion for flood victims. These are likely for his party-run provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Prime Minister Modi offered his condolences to the Pakistan government. He tweeted, “Saddened to see the devastation caused by floods in Pakistan.

We extend our heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims, the injured and all those affected by this natural calamity and hope for an early restoration of normalcy.” There was no mention or promise of aid. In response, Pakistani PM Shehbaz Sharif thanked the Indian PM by mentioning, “With their characteristic resilience, the people of Pakistan shall, Insha’Allah, overcome the adverse effects of this natural calamity and rebuild their lives and communities.”

Again, a request for support was missing. There are reports of discussion within the Indian government on providing aid to Pakistan. Under normal circumstances, it would have been announced without hesitation, but this being Pakistan, the government is cautious. It needs to be diplomatically correct. Meanwhile in Pakistan, its finance minister, Miftah Ismail, mentioned that the government could consider importing edibles from India on account of sharp rise in local food prices.

Miftah Ismail tweeted, “More than one international agency has approached the govt to allow them to bring food items from India through the land border. The govt will take the decision to allow imports or not based on supply shortage position.” Meanwhile Pakistan permitted duty free import of onions and tomatoes from Iran and Afghanistan. It finally announced that it will not resume trade with India.

While trade and aid are two different subjects, Pakistan is sending the message that it hesitates to accept Indian support. Pakistan is aware that India is the global pharmacy and could provide emergency medicines to prevent outbreak of diseases linked to floods. India has assisted other nations impacted by natural disasters and could do the same for Pakistan but procrastinates as rejection of its aid offer could result in a diplomatic fiasco. Hence, it awaits Pakistan’s request.

Shehbaz requesting India for support could provide fodder to Imran Khan. Fawad Choudhary, the erstwhile Imran government information minister, tweeted, “We will oppose such decisions and never allow trade on the pretext of floods. The government should not betray the blood of the people of Kashmir.” It is strange that even in a moment of crisis, Pakistani politicians continue to play power games, ignoring the suffering of their populace.

Pakistan could be repeating the mistake of the Bhola cyclone which hit East Pakistan in November 1970 and led to the breakup of the state due to the delayed and poor response of Islamabad. Historically Indian aid to Pakistan has always met with resistance from Islamabad. In 2001, India accepted Pakistani aid after the Gujarat earthquake.

In October 2005, India pledged $25 million at a UN donors’ conference in Geneva, in support of earthquake victims in Pakistan, after an earthquake hit both nations along the LOC. India sent three trains and an aircraft carrying relief material, while rejecting reciprocal aid, claiming it had sufficient resources. The Guardian, in an article of 28 October 2005, stated, “The Indian donation was a minor breakthrough in relations between the two states, which are seeking to overcome old animosities.”

India also offered to deploy its helicopters to assist POK residents trapped near the LOC. General Musharraf was prepared to accept Indian helicopters but without crews, which India rejected. Pakistan rejected joint army rescue operations. In August 2010, when Pakistan was reeling under floods, the Indian government offered $20 million as aid. Simultaneously, Pakistani newspapers blamed India’s release of excess water into the Sutlej and Beas rivers as the cause and implored their government to refuse Indian aid.

An editorial in the Pakistan Urdu daily, Nawa-i-Waqt, even stated, “The offer of aid is akin to throwing salt on our wounds.” The Pakistani government dithered on the Indian offer for a week and finally accepted that its aid be routed through the UN, which India did. Indian assistance to Pakistan during calamities, has neither improved relations nor reduced its support to terrorism. There is a pause, then the scenario returns to normal.

It is true that aid during calamities should not be linked to relations or behaviour of states and be considered a humanitarian gesture. However, if there is no positive response by the recipient state on the goodwill of the donor, then there is bound to be hesitation. Most damaging for India would be rejection of its aid on account of internal politics of Pakistan. It could lead to a diplomatic loss of face. A simpler option would be to send aid through the UN, as was done in 2005 and 2010.

However, this would imply Indian support being invisible in the eyes of the common Pakistani. The Shehbaz government requesting India for aid could damage its internal credibility, especially after claiming no diplomatic engagement till restoration of article 370. Thus, both nations hesitate. An ideal option would be simultaneous request and acceptance through backchannel dialogues. This will ensure both governments’ interests are protected. However, that is unlikely to happen.

A version of this story appears in the print edition of the September 6, 2022, issue.

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.