Flood-Hit Kerala Questions Modi Government's Rejection of Foreign Assistance

As Centre-state relations are fraught over the former's perceived indifferent response to the Kerala floods, yet another crisis might erupt.

New Delhi: Following the Central government’s refusal of Rs 700 crore aid offered by the United Arab Emirates to flood-ravaged Kerala, the Pinarayi Vijayan-led state government and the Narendra Modi-led Union government may be staring at a long-drawn political tussle. Given the willingness shown by Kerala’s Left Democratic Front leadership to accept voluntary foreign aid, the fight may transform into yet another Centre-state feud, a theme that has been much debated over the past four years.

In a late night press statement on August 22 that put to rest all speculation, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said that although India would welcome contributions from non-resident Indians, persons of Indian origin and international foundations to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund and the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, the Union government would not be accepting any aid from foreign governments, a decision which he said was “in line with the existing policy”.

While it is a fact that the Centre has not accepted any aid from foreign governments during natural calamities since 2004, the country’s official disaster management plan does actually envisage the possibility of such assistance.

What does the national plan for disasters say?

The May 2016 National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP), prepared by the National Disaster Management Authority in accordance with the Disaster Management Act, 2005, clearly says:

“As a matter of policy, the government of India does not issue any appeal for foreign assistance in the wake of a disaster. However, if the national government of another country voluntarily offers assistance as a goodwill gesture in solidarity with the disaster victims, the Central government may accept the offer.”

“The Ministry of Home Affairs, government of India is required to coordinate with the Ministry of External Affairs, government of India, which is primarily responsible for reviewing foreign offers of assistance and channelising the same. In consultation with the concerned state government, the MHA will assess the response requirements that the foreign teams can provide,” Article 9.2 of the NDMP adds.

So why is the Modi government reluctant to bring into action the plan’s provision which was prepared under its own tutelage? Presumably because accepting foreign aid in such times would reflect poorly on India’s own disaster preparedness or perhaps highlight the inadequacy of the Centre’s own financial assistance. However, given the keenness of Kerala’s political leadership to accept funds from Gulf countries, the decision may prove to be a political thorn between the state and the Centre.

Victims being rowed to safety. Credit: PTI

Hours before India announced its decision to decline the offer of aid from the UAE, Pinarayi Vijayan in an interview to the Indian Express had said the Centre should accept the funds. “As I understand, the UAE on its own has proposed this aid. The UAE cannot be considered as any other nation, as their rulers have underlined. Indians, especially Keralites, have contributed immensely in their nation-building,” Vijayan said in the context of the large-scale migration of Malayalis to the Gulf over several decades.

Vijayan’s stand was echoed by the Congress in the state, which is the opposition party. On August 22, former Congress chief minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy wrote a letter to Modi expressing his disappointment over speculation that the Centre may not accept the UAE’s aid. “Now reports are being spread that the government of India denied permission to accept this great monetary help. This decision is quite disappointing to the people of Kerala. Rules should be as such to eradicate the sufferings of the people. If there exist any obstacles against the acceptance of foreign financial aid, kindly look into the matter seriously and bring suitable modifications,” he wrote.

He added, “I hope the government of India will take further initiative steps to provide maximum possible assistance to Kerala as you have decided to treat this flood as ‘calamity of severe nature’.”

After the aid was rejected, it is clear that the Central and state governments have different opinions.

Tensions between the Centre and state have been worsening ever since floods hit the south Indian state. While the chief minister estimated the loss to be between Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 crore and demanded Rs 2,000 crore from the Centre as immediate relief, only Rs 760 crore was announced, of which just Rs 80 crore has been disbursed. This has rubbed salt in the wound of Keralites. Further, a social media campaign by right-wing groups urging people not to donate to the chief minister’s relief fund, and vilifying Kerala as a beef-eating state, has only added insult to injury.

Against this backdrop, many in Kerala think that by not accepting aid for one of India’s worst floods in a century, the BJP is trying to bulldoze the state, where the saffron party has a negligible presence, into submission.

Besides, the provision in NDMP clearly states that the decision on foreign funds must be made in consultation with the Union Ministry of Home Affairs and concerned state governments, which are better placed to assess the extent of the damage. If the developments of last few days are taken into account, the federal principle was clearly not followed by the Centre.

What do experts say?

File photo from 2001 of Lalit Mansingh, who was India’s foreign secretary at the time. Credit: R.D. Ward/US Department of Defence

Officials who have dealt with issues of foreign assistance in the past say that foreign aid could be classified broadly into bilateral development assistance for projects and immediate aid at the time of a humanitarian disaster.

Lalit Mansingh, former Indian foreign secretary, recalls that during his deputation as joint secretary in the department of economic affairs, he was asked to prepare a note to draw up a policy on India as an aid recipient.

“I had suggested that getting foreign assistance was not cost effective,” said Mansingh, “The reasoning was that India had to go through separate cumbersome processes for each of the 30-40 countries that were giving aid, despite many of them providing small amount of aid of a few million dollars.”

The policy on accepting development assistance was, however, changed only during Jaswant Singh’s term as finance minister.

Accordingly, the NDA government reviewed the policy to accept development assistance only from G-8 countries and the European Commission. EU members, who were not part of the G-8, could also provide aid to India but it had to be a minimum amount of $25 million per year.

However, Mansingh, who had been foreign secretary during the January 2001 Bhuj earthquake, noted that humanitarian assistance was a different kettle of fish.

He said that the review of that bilateral development assistance policy had an indirect impact, since a lot of the smaller countries, mainly the Scandinavian nations, gave donations to civil society NGOs, which were covered under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 1976.

Seven months after Manmohan Singh took over as prime minister, an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude stuck near the Indonesian coastline on December 26, 2004. It triggered a destructive tsunami across the Indian Ocean region.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Credit: PTI

India first rejected aid during the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean under prime minister Manmohan Singh. . Credit: PTI

India, along with the US, Japan and Australia, were the first responders for relief work in the Maldives, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. However, despite being one of the worst-affected countries, India declined immediate humanitarian aid citing available “capabilities and resources to deal with the aftermath of the disaster through its own national effort”.

Since then, India has consistently not accepted any humanitarian assistance from foreign governments in the immediate aftermath of any major natural disaster.

Before the Kerala floods, the last time that India had reiterated this policy publicly was during the Uttarakhand floods in 2013. Even as the then MEA spokesperson declined foreign aid, he had kept the door slightly open by suggesting foreign offers could be examined for specific projects during the reconstruction phase.

Mansingh, who had been the coordinator for foreign aid to India during Bhuj earthquake, is clear that it is not correct for India to close the door on all international humanitarian assistance in a routine manner.

“I personally feel that to have a blanket policy that, ‘No, we will never receive any foreign help,’ doesn’t quite suit our national interests… because in my view, humanitarian assistance has to reach within a particular time frame to be effective,” the former foreign secretary told The Wire.

Asserting that “local authorities are the best judge”, he added, “As a matter of policy, the state government is the one who should decide whether we have enough or help is needed.”

Referring to his Bhuj experience, Mansingh said that a key principle was to give proper instructions to foreign governments on the nature of aid required, after consultations with local authorities.

“From experience of dealing with humanitarian assistance, we must be clear in indicating to our donors what kind of assistance would be helpful in what kind of disaster situation.”

In 2001, the MEA had set up a unit to deal with the coordination of foreign aid for Bhuj. “The Gujarat government made it clear right at the beginning that they didn’t want used clothes, no blankets or medicines. What they needed was specialised equipment like concrete cutting machinery or sniffer dog squads,” he said.

He said that the Gujarat example could be a better way for the Indian government to deal with offers of foreign aid.

Mansingh suggested that the MEA should have prior guidelines to convey “in a gentle and respectful way, we can say that if you want to offer us help, these are the areas that you can be useful and leave it at that”.

Large scale destruction has prompted the Kerala government to seek Rs 2,000 crore as aid from the Centre. Credit: PTI

He, however, noted that “cash is actually the best form of aid”, especially for a country like India.

Terming offers of humanitarian assistance as a “spontaneous response” from governments in the wake of disasters, he said, “This route (of bilateral humanitarian assistance) should be kept open (by India) and not just closed on a matter of principle.”

“We offer humanitarian assistance even to developed countries in times of crisis. This is a spontaneous response when there is a devastating disaster and it has nothing to do with political relations between country. Even at the worst of times, we had offered aid to Pakistan after a devastating earthquake,” added Mansingh.

Centre’s obligations paramount

Similarly, P.D.T. Achary, former secretary general of the Lok Sabha and a close observer of Indian federalism, is of the view that if the Centre has declined funds from foreign countries, it is obliged to step up its financial assistance and extend all help sought by the state government.

“The NDMP classifies disasters into categories – L0, L1,L2,L3. The centre has already declared Kerala floods as a ‘calamity of severe nature’, which means it falls under the L3 category. In this category, the Centre has greater financial responsibility, almost three times more, than the state.”

L3 category disasters speak of situations where the state governments may not have the capacity to respond adequately and therefore would need Central assistance.

“The Rs 500 crore offered by the prime minister is just a drop in the ocean. It has to immediately release funds requested by the state government,” Achary added.

Asked about the demand that the Centre should declare the floods as a ‘national disaster’, he said that after the National Disaster Management Authority was formed and the NDMP laid out according to the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and National Policy on Disaster Management, 2009, all disasters in India are national.

“There is no need to declare it as one. Before the authority was formed, the Centre was required to declare a calamity a ‘national disaster’ by an executive decision. But now, the Centre and state have to assess the damage, mobilise state and district-level disaster management authorities, and accordingly allocate funds for rehabilitation and reconstruction,” he said.

Opposition’s campaign

The catch is that although the Centre has declined foreign government aid, it has still not moved on assessing the extent of the damage and allocating funds, despite multiple requests by the state. This has created a perception in Kerala that the Centre was using the opposition-run state’s weak position to isolate it politically.

The perception has led to resentment against the Modi government, with opposition parties hitting out at the BJP. Earlier this week, a Congress party spokesman tweeted:

Even the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has been repeatedly urging the prime minister to draw a plan soon to tackle unprecedented damage to both public and private properties in Kerala.

Soon after the Centre’s decision to refuse the UAE offer, Kerala’s finance minister Thomas Issac upped the ante. In a significant departure from the state government’s non-confrontational attitude towards the Centre until now, he said, “The assistance from the UAE is an outright grant, not a loan. The GoI cannot reject it saying it is a loan. They have done it without even consulting the state government, the Centre took a unilateral decision without any discussion,” he told The News Minute, adding that if the Modi government does not reconsider its decision, the state government will be forced to raise the matter as a political issue.

“If the Centre views accepting foreign aid as an issue of dignity, let the Union government give us Rs 700 crore. The Centre is neither giving us money nor allowing anyone else to do it. What kind of attitude is this,” he said, while putting forward an idea that the state government should be allowed to impose a cess on GST to raise additional revenues. The Centre’s actions were against the Disaster Management Policy of India, he said.

Under the procedures to deal with the L3 category calamity, Srinivasa Prasad writing for Firstpost, said:

“…Kerala will present a memorandum to the Centre sometime soon, detailing the losses it has suffered and the money it needs. The Centre will then dispatch an inter-ministerial team to the affected area to assess the damage and arrive at the quantum of relief aid. It’s not a charity that Centre will bestow on Kerala. The Modi government is legally and morally bound to grant funds to the flood-ravaged state.”

With political pressure surging, the Centre has indicated that the relief offered until now is only an “advance assistance” and that it would release additional funds after further stocktaking. However, as the state government faces the daunting task of rehabilitating people over the next few months, the Centre’s tardiness may precipitate yet another crisis in Centre-state relations, as witnessed between Andhra Pradesh and the Modi government only recently.