January 10, 2005

Turned up noses

Something that's been nagging at me over the last two weeks is the way the Government of India turned down offers of help from abroad to deal with the tidal wave disaster.

In some circles, this has been hailed as a fine step. We're showing the world that we can help ourselves, we don't need handouts or expertise from anyone. The subtext here is that we have "arrived"; we are no longer that poor India you grew up with, but are stepping up to take our place among the advanced, developed, generally more equal nations of the world. So keep your offers of help to yourself, we'll handle this thing by ourselves.

Now there's some truth in all that. India is changing, in complex and rapid ways. For a young Indian, particularly, I think the next 30 or 40 years will be boundlessly exciting: the promise that's there to be filled, our tryst with destiny if you like, is in turning the world order on its head. Nothing less, if we do things right.

Yet even so, I think turning up our nose at help from outside is misguided. At a time of great calamity, it doesn't say we have arrived, it only says we have substantial lengths to travel.

After all, especially when suffering has been on such a vast scale, what is so sacrosanct about a line on a map? What's the difference between a monetary contribution from Satyapal Singh, saddened in Gorakhpur by the tsunami, and Sagar Singh, saddened in Kathmandu by the tsunami? Is Sagar's contribution to be rejected because he's Nepali, because an imaginary line snakes somewhere between him and Satyapal?

And after all too, we're sending aid to other tragedy-struck countries in the region. None of them have turned their noses up at us.

And look at it this way: aid and volunteers are pouring into Tamil Nadu from all over India. Should Tamil Nadu turn away such help, claiming that they can deal with the catastrophe themselves? When I went to work in Orissa after the calamitous cyclone in 1999, should Orissa cops have politely put me on the next flight home from Bhubaneswar? What's the difference, really, between aid from Maharashtra to Tamil Nadu on the one hand, and aid from the UK to India on the other?

When people suffer, other people want to help. That simple desire is that common humanity I've mentioned elsewhere. It should hardly matter where the help is coming from. Rejecting such attempts to reach out is every bit as churlish as not reaching out at all, not helping at all. And it bothers me that such churlishness is seen as a sign of our having "arrived". As a triumph of sorts.


Manish said...


Great blog-- I enjoy reading it immensely.

I thought India was turning down aid from foreign governments, not aid or efforts from foreign organizations (OxFam, Doctors Without Borders etc). Isn't your Sagar Singh scenario just wrong.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thanks Manish. You're right about foreign govts/agencies. But I don't see the difference. Should the TN Govt turn down assistance from the Maharashtra Govt, but allow Maharashtrian agencies/people to come help?

Manish said...

What if the aid comes with strings attached? What if it comes not as money but in kind which may or may not be useful?

My take is more along the lines of: If I have the money to weather a financial crisis, why take money from my relatives/friends/neighbors?

Anyway, it is not a big deal. Thanks for taking time to read your comments and replying!

Nasi Avial said...

Hi Dilip.
Been following your reports with great interest.

But this is a grey area. I agree, it seems churlish to turn down help from pvt individuals etc. but I am not sure about the govt aid.

In any case, much of the govt aid comes with (as Manish says) strings attached. These are either (1) Halliburton will be the sole agency for resconstruction type; and/or (2) diverted from other projects. In any case, much of this is never distributed. I read that just $22mn of the $2bn promised to Iran after last year's Bam earthquake has been disbursed.

Remember the great fanfare with which the US imposed sanctions on India in 1998. I am no fan of the N-bomb but could not help noticing at that time that annual grants from US to india was of the order of $20mn.

atracus said...

If you think the US helps anyone without an ulterior motive and without exacting its pound of flesh, think again.
Dubya made a statement today that the US sending aid to tsunami affected areas was good for the image of the United States.
Here's the link -

Compassionate bloke, isn't he? :)

To believe that US aid comes without strings attached is quite naive and I am sure you know better. It should be rightly looked at as Opportunism.
And if we are reasonably self-sufficient, we're better off by not taking opportunistic help from those who first think about their own image when their neighbours are in trouble.

Dilip D'Souza said...


NOBODY helps anyone without an ulterior motive. Nobody looks away from opportunity. I see no problem with Dubya being conscious of the image the US will get with his aid package. After all, that's what we are doing too, aren't we? We are pretty conscious of our "improved image" as a result of sending aid out to our ravaged neighbours; I think today's news has something about how we have the most capable navy in the region, as proved by our ability to take this aid places.

(Nothing wrong with any of that either).

I'm not sure I see any great virtue in self-sufficiency.

When are you coming after me for that book?

atracus said...

Two simple issues here.
Firstly, we are going by the premise that we are obliged to take any help that is offered to us in any difficulty, and that we have no case in which we must refuse help.
To be systematic, lets think of cases where one must NOT accept help (I am sure there are cases like that, right?).
Prima facie, it appears to me that it is perfectly plausible (and recommended) to accept help in a difficult situation, if any of the following situation is true -
1. If we are unable to handle the situation on our own.
2. If the entity offering help will NOT exact its pound of flesh in return for help, and will NOT, sometime, force us to do things that we would not want to do.

In the tsunami case, we were able to handle the situation well, and the US is definitely an entity that will twist anyone's arm to get what it wants. Better not to be obliged to such an entity.

Lastly, but not the least, you are wrong when you say that everyone helps someone with an ulterior motive.
Very Ayn Randish stance, IMO!
I am sure you can yourself think of situations in which you helped someone when there was no direct benefit to yourself as an individual.

(I am presuming that by ulterior motive, you mean a motive that benefits oneself directly, and NOT of the far-sighted type that says, if my neighbour prospers, then I prosper, too. These two motives differ in their origins, and need to be looked at differently)

Anonymous said...

Yeah... felt vaguely uncomfortable about the Indian gesture of turning down aid for the tsunami victims. Somewhat un-neighborly.