Recently the old controversy regarding foreign aid for coping with disaster situations was revived in the wake of the highly destructive Kerala floods. The UAE government offered help of Rs. 700 crore for the massive relief and rehabilitation effort needed here. Citing the previous policy of not accepting relief for disaster situations, the Government of India did not accept this help. This gives rise to two questions. Firstly, was this policy justified in the first place? Secondly, is the continuation of this policy justified now, specifically in the context of Kerala but also generally?
It cannot be said that the policy of not accepting foreign aid for disaster situations did not have any rationale behind it. There had been cases of misuse of foreign aid in disaster situations in the past. There was also apprehension about conditions being attached to such aid, directly or indirectly. Overall it is better to be as selfreliant as possible in meeting disaster situations.
Nevertheless, it will be better to reconsider this policy now and start accepting foreign aid in disaster situations after ensuring that no undesirable conditions are attached to this foreign aid and it is genuinely needed.
The reason for this reconsideration is that we are now passing through times of climate change when the number of disasters is likely to increase and intensity of disasters is also likely to increase. This is true of most countries.
In this situation different countries should be willing to come more and more to the help of other countries. Any policy of exaggerated and complete restraint on accepting foreign aid will be an unnecessary hindrance in such international help and cooperation for humanitarian causes.
India should help other disaster-hit countries. It should accept help from other countries to cope with its own disaster situations, of course after ensuring that no undesirable conditions are attached.
In the current discourse on climate change there is widespread agreement that those rich countries which are historically responsible for high per capita greenhouse gas emissions should help developing and poorer countries in coping with the adverse impacts of climate change including worsening natural disasters.
In such a situation to clamp down completely on foreign aid for disaster situations may amount to denying ourselves funds to which we have a right. Hence it is time to withdraw the policy of complete ban on foreign aid for disasters.
However, the emphasis on trying to be as self-reliant as possible in meeting disaster situations should continue. Our rescue efforts have been improving. In terms of rescue taken up with good understanding of local situation, no foreign expertise could have matched what fishermen of Kerala achieved with their great courage and skill. The contribution of official agencies was also good. Countries which have remained dependent on foreign teams and help for the basics of coping with disasters have regretted this. So, there should be no let-up in our efforts to become as self-reliant as possible in facing worsening disaster situations.
At the same time, we should be willing to accept foreign aid in disaster situations wherever it is needed and is available without any undesirable conditions.
This is particularly true regarding the recent offer of disaster aid from the UAE as the emirates have a huge community of Indians and the biggest chunk within this community is from Kerala. We may also ask whether the aid offered by the UAE was really needed.
It is well-known that the reconstruction and rehabilitation challenge in Kerala is huge. It was reported recently that the Kerala government is in the process of negotiating a loan of around Rs. 3000 crore from the World Bank or other international agencies.
In such a situation any help which reduces the amount of loan should be welcome, if undesirable strings are not attached to this offer of help.
Hence while it cannot be denied that several problems have been associated with disaster aid in the past, in the present circumstances any aid that comes as a grant without undesirable conditions for the reconstruction of Kerala should be accepted. This should also not initiate a change of policy regarding disaster aid. India should be not just a recipient but also a donor of unattached, unconditional disaster aid, particularly to poorer and more vulnerable countries. Much more allocation should be given to strengthening our rescue and rehabilitation effort for all disaster situations.
Increasing international cooperation, mutual help and learning must be an integral part of our stepped-up effort for meeting the increasing challenge of worsening disasters in future.
(The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.)