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.


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?

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?

Anonymous said...

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