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India right to spurn foreign disaster relief

Rejecting aid for Kerala floods, Modi shows country no longer needs handouts

| India
Flood victims unload relief material from an Indian Air Force helicopter in the southern state of Kerala on Aug. 21.   © Reuters

In the wake of the devastating flooding in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has struck a defiant note by refusing to accept disaster aid from foreign governments.

New Delhi turned down aid offered by the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and several other countries, and stated in its "no, thank you" message that it is "committed to relief and rehabilitation through domestic efforts."

The decision has been presented by some observers as arrogant and self-defeating when every cent matters to bring battered Kerala back to normal, after around 400 people died and 300,000 were evacuated.

In the polarized theater of Indian domestic politics, critics have alleged that Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have a narrow partisan agenda in punishing their political opponents in Kerala's Marxist-led Left Democratic Front government.

But Modi's stand is fully justified. Over the years, India has developed domestic disaster management capacities and has won praise from the United Nations for being the first country to draw up national and local disaster mitigation strategies that are reducing deaths and losses.

New Delhi's decision rightly shows India's self-confidence in its considerable homebred abilities. Modi's insistence that India can cope with Kerala's needs is factually correct and conveys a powerful strategic message.

India is attempting to project itself as an emerging great power that is a net giver of public goods rather than a recipient. Unlike a poor country that would gratefully open its palms for the dollar bills pouring in from abroad after being hit by a calamity, India seeks to paint itself as a self-reliant nation that has weaned itself off from dependence on foreign charity.

New Delhi wishes to be seen as a benevolent country which can and will assist other less developed nations. Since Modi's ascent in 2014, India has stepped up humanitarian diplomacy. Rupees, military and civilian disaster relief workers and materials have been dispatched to Yemen, Nepal, the Philippines, Myanmar, Tonga, Fiji, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

While previous Indian administrations had also displayed solidarity with countries enduring natural or man-made crises, Modi has given unprecedented publicity to Indian aid, to boost his nationalist credentials and buttress the point that India is now an aid provider.

Even in long-term development aid for poverty reduction and sustainability, India has consciously shifted from being a net recipient to a net giver. For instance, in the year 2015-16, India disbursed $1.16 billion as aid to others while receiving only $322 million from foreign governments and multilateral banks.

Loans from entities like the European Union, Japan, the World Bank and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS do still make it to India, where poverty rates and health care deficits remain high, but they are dwarfed by sums that India is doling out to countries including Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, as well as many African states.

Although India's foreign aid vision is not precisely and transparently laid down by its byzantine bureaucracy, New Delhi's self-congratulatory tone is evident whenever a disaster or an economic need arises abroad. India takes pride in how its model of delivering humanitarian aid and "development cooperation" is, it says, more consultative, less intrusive and non-exploitative compared to the strategies of Western powers or of China.

India's post-colonial identity is at stake here because Modi and many other Indian politicians and state elites have inbuilt suspicions about ulterior motives that emanate from receiving foreign aid for disasters or for regular economic development projects.

At the heart of the matter is the Indian state's disdain for foreign governmental assistance routed through nongovernment organizations (NGOs), monitored by foreign experts and administered by external governmental agencies that are beyond New Delhi's control.

The conditionalities that often accompany foreign grants and loans grate on the nerves of nationalistic Indians who see "aid imperialism" as aiming to undermine India's sovereignty.

Modi's BJP has an additional grudge against faith-based foreign NGOs and governmental bodies. It fears that they will capitalize on disaster relief to engage in religious conversions or to stoke extremist movements.

Eyeing humanitarian and developmental aid as a Trojan Horse for cultural infiltration is not unique to India. In other poorer countries in Asia and in Africa, similar criticisms are voiced.

Investment is a different matter, as it is seen as a more equal arrangement. Modi has courted the same UAE and Qatar (which were ready to open their purses for disaster relief in Kerala) with personal diplomacy and high-profile visits to attract large commitments of inward foreign direct investment (FDI). The logic is that FDI from abroad is welcome (it has been entering India in record levels since Modi came to office four years ago), but not charity.

The Indian narrative is that exchanges with foreign countries should be on a "win-win" basis in which FDI generates economic growth and boosts exports while also giving the foreign parties adequate financial returns.

So, New Delhi remains open to foreign funding for long-term post-disaster reconstruction that adds economic value to India, even as immediate succor is rejected.

The allergy to foreign aid and contempt for foreign NGOs is by no means Modi's invention. In the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the centrist Congress Party first laid down a policy that India would not accept foreign bilateral assistance for victim relief in natural emergencies.

The India of 2018 is even more certain that it has the means and a well-oiled indigenous machinery to handle its own natural disasters. Kerala has indeed been hammered by the floods, but India is communicating that it has enough resources to heal its wounds. By rejecting foreign assistance so openly, Modi is demonstrating that a more assertive India has arrived on the international stage.

Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India. His most recent book is "Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India's Prime Minister."

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