(This is an essay from our print quarterly ‘Disaster Politics’. See more from the issue here.)
Southasia has been the site of some of the world’s worst natural disasters that have claimed millions of lives, caused devastation to innumerable people, and destroyed assets built over generations. After the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, the number of dead was estimated at 11,000 in India alone, while across the Palk Strait in Sri Lanka, the figure was almost twice as high. In October 2005, at least 87,000 men, women and children died in the Kashmir earthquake, the epicentre of which was just west of the Line of Control (LoC) that separates India and Pakistan. The most recent instance of such mass calamity was the 25 April 2015 earthquake and its aftershocks that caused over 8000 deaths in Nepal.
Ironically, these events that have spelt pain, trauma and desolation for ordinary people have been used by nation states – deliberately, consciously, strategically and at times cynically – to project their soft power. Pragmatic foreign policy paradigms are all about maximising every opportunity that comes along to further their perceived ‘national interest’. Contemporary India offers a good example of such strategising. From the 2004 tsunami to the Nepal temblor – India has gone from casting itself as a country that refused disaster aid to one that sought to outbid everybody else at the donors’ table in assisting a quake-hit neighbour.
It wasn’t always like this. In 2001, when the Gujarat earthquake flattened the district of Bhuj, India had gratefully acknowledged and accepted assistance from governments across the world. By December 2004, however, despite the enormity of the tsunami that had hit its southeastern coast, the newly elected Manmohan Singh-led UPA government offered a cold shoulder to global offers of help with the following words: “We feel that we can cope up with the situation on our own and we will take their help if needed.”
If this position was meant to signal that India was now an emerging world power, capable of handling its own challenges, it certainly achieved that purpose. A laudatory article in Bloomberg Business commented:
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sparked national pride when he refused aid offered by the US and other countries. Thanks, but no thanks, he said politely, we can help ourselves. That refusal boosted the relief effort from within India – a psychological shift marked by Indians deciding to take charge of their own destiny.
The Korea Herald editorial acknowledged the rise of a new kid on the block, by saying, “New Delhi is seeking to project the image of a self-reliant major player in the Indian Ocean region, which can help shape the region’s security and economic affairs.”
This policy was later tweaked to allow funds from multilateral agencies, but the stance after the tsunami nevertheless proved a marker of sorts in India’s transition from an aid-receiving country (in situations of large-scale disasters) to an aid-giving one. A booklet released by India’s Ministry of External Affairs in January 2005 showcased its efforts by claiming that India, in keeping with its philosophy of vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world as one family), was among the first countries to contribute to relief efforts, making sure to highlight the fact that it was a part of the prestigious Tsunami Core Group with the US, Australia, Japan and Canada. The booklet noted that, “with confidence in its capabilities of dealing with this disaster, India was able to move very quickly to extend timely assistance to other more affected countries, in particular, to our nearest neighbours Sri Lanka and Maldives.” In fact, in Sri Lanka, India was the first to respond, virtually on the day the disaster occurred. It also announced monetary assistance of USD 22 million and USD 1.1 million for Sri Lanka and Maldives respectively, and an Indian relief team was dispatched to Indonesia.
The script the Narendra Modi government followed with regard to the Nepal earthquake in 2015 was therefore not entirely new. It was under his predecessor Manmohan Singh’s watch that the quantum of the country’s net disbursal of aid came to outstrip substantially the aid the country received. What was new under the Modi dispensation, however, was a certain forceful and proactive approach, evident in Prime Minister Modi’s tweets within minutes of the news of the Nepal earthquake, the voluble coverage by the Indian media of the country’s relief and rescue efforts, in addition to the significant foreign-aid outlay in its first budget presented a month before. A certain impetuosity marked the Indian response at the international conference on Nepal’s reconstruction that was held in Kathmandu in late June 2015. India made it a point to outbid China in terms of the aid it extended to its strategically crucial neighbour. While China promised grant assistance of USD 483 million before 2018, India pledged that its total aid would touch USD 2 billion by 2020.
The language that India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj adopted during that conference was rife with allusions to an old friendship, one she characterised as roti-beti ka sambandh – a term used to describe relationships developed through exchange of food and marital ties. But beyond the rhetoric, Swaraj drove home two crucial aspects of her government’s intervention: that its generosity was without parallel and that it was the first off the block in terms of extending aid. As Swaraj put it at the meet, “What is important is not that this support was larger than other foreign countries; what matters is the strong feeling of empathy and the instantaneous, instinctive and heart-felt response from Indians for their Nepali brothers and sisters. Institutions and people reacted as if a disaster had struck India [my emphasis].
Two central paradoxes inhabit the politics of aid-giving by ambitious states. The first is that their altruism is by no means unalloyed. Strategic imperatives undergird each move and gesture; the value of every dollar spent is assessed and entered in the ledger book of national gains and losses. When the 2004 tsunami hit, it was the US, a country that was arguably the least affected by the calamity, which pledged USD 2.3 billion in government, private and corporate donations, emerging as one of the largest donors. Assessing the impact of this, Karl Inderfurth, former assistant secretary of state for Southasian affairs, commented in an interview that this “good work” had boosted the US global image. “To project the humanitarian face of American foreign policy has been very useful,” he argued.
India may have been a latecomer to this particular ‘game of thrones’ but it has learnt the ropes fairly quickly. In 2005, it offered assistance to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina which hit the southern US. It contributed USD 5 million to the American Red Cross for its relief activities and also ensured supply of essential drugs. But such fleeting gestures to the world notwithstanding, the focus of Indian aid diplomacy has largely been on Southasia, with a clear view to buttress the country’s status as the paramount power in the region.
Where New Delhi’s aid dollar went in 2014-2015 tells this story eloquently. The lion’s share was earmarked for Bhutan, as it has always been, even under earlier dispensations. Bhutan, the one country in Southasia where China has not been able to exercise any influence worth the name, received USD 483 million from India in 2014-15. The next two countries on the list – Afghanistan and Sri Lanka – trailed far behind with receipts of USD 97 million and USD 80 million respectively. Nepal received USD 72 million. The aid given to Bangladesh alone, USD 56 million, equalled aid given to all African countries taken together.
The second paradox of aid-giving, or indeed receiving aid, is that it is not strictly based on need. Policy-making in such cases is often dictated by perceptions and policy formulations of the ruling elite rather than the actual realities of the affected communities. Despite their unending rhetoric of ‘affective empathy’, ruling elites – guided as they are by what they construe as ‘national interest’ – are exceedingly poor arbiters of what should be the priorities of the moment, regarding those who have suffered the most.
Take the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, for instance. It shook the mighty Himalaya but not the cynicism of decision-makers based in New Delhi and Islamabad. On this occasion, as it had during the tsunami nine months earlier, India steadfastly refused foreign aid. The consequences of such a position were grave. There were around 30,000 families on its soil without a roof over their heads, even as harsh winter conditions were setting in. The country’s inadequate stock of tents, unsurprisingly, fuelled a sharp rise in public anger and alienation in Kashmir.
Any hope that an earthquake that had killed so many in both India and Pakistan would have brought the two countries together in a shared sense of destiny and responsibility was dissipated even before the aftershocks ended. The familiar pall of distrust that has always hung over Pakistan-India relations persisted even against the tragic earthquake, with each move to reach out made by one side being stymied by the other. India’s offer of the services of its defence helicopters to airlift people stranded in inaccessible terrain on the Pakistani side of the LoC, which saw the greatest devastation, was refused on the grounds that such a move may violate local sensitivities. In Pakistan, Indian helicopters were allowed but without Indian army personnel piloting them.
India conducted itself with similar caution. While it was generous with its offer of helicopters, it refused to share data on seismic activity, fearing that such information could provide its neighbour with the capacity to hone in on any nuclear tests that it may conduct in the future. It also pared down Pakistan’s proposal for five relief centres along the LoC to three.
Each articulation and counter-articulation between the acrimonious neighbours indicated all too clearly that it was not the Kashmiris but a region called Kashmir that mattered to both governments. As the late political analyst Praful Bidwai commented at the time, “We citizens… have every right to be infuriated at the cussedness and bloody mindedness of our rulers, who still cannot rise above the pettiest considerations of prestige, protocol and precedent, nor spontaneously assert a simple urge to relieve human suffering.”
Over the years the propaganda machinery in both countries have become more pro-active and sophisticated, constantly putting out information on how help has been offered to the other.
The geographical contiguity of Southasian countries has meant that a natural calamity that visits one country often visits the other simultaneously, and so a whole new lexicon of disaster diplomacy has emerged over time. Even when the generosity of the neighbour was accepted, it was suitably tempered to make it seem almost like an exercise in tokenism thus precluding the possibility of the opponent claiming it was pivotal in the other’s recovery.
During the floods that wreaked havoc in Kashmir in September 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after an aerial survey of the flood-hit region, dispatched a letter duly hand-delivered by the country’s High Commissioner in Islamabad. It read:
While reviewing the situation in Jammu & Kashmir, I was informed that the damage to life and property is equally, if not more, severe in areas across the Line of Control as well. My heart goes out to the affected people and my deepest sympathies are with them and their families. In this hour of need, I offer any assistance that you may need in the relief efforts that will be undertaken by the government of Pakistan. Our resources are at your disposal wherever you need them.
It wasn’t long before a response from Modi’s counterpart across the border arrived. A Pakistan government spokesperson revealed that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had undertaken an aerial survey of the flood-hit areas, also on September 7, and that the country’s relief and rescue operations were proceeding effectively. She noted, “The people of Pakistan are also feeling pain and saddened over the loss of lives and properties of the people in IoK (Indian Occupied Jammu & Kashmir) and are with them and ready to help in whatever way possible to mitigate their sufferings caused by the heavy floods.”
Bouquets and brickbats
It goes without saying that this verbal exchange, conducted proforma, had taken place against a backdrop of unprecedented distress and did not translate into any meaningful action. It may, however, have prompted the Pakistani political establishment to put in place a system of more pro-active regional philanthropy.
When the earthquake shook Nepal in the spring of 2015, Indian relief aircraft and media contingents touched down at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport within hours of the temblor. Pakistan, meanwhile, was readying a medical team of doctors, relief-and-rescue equipment, water, medicines and 2000 ready-to-eat food packets for Nepal. Two Pakistani C-130 military transport aircraft landed within a day of the tragedy, followed by two more. It signalled a new appetite on the part of the Government of Pakistani to project its soft power and a section of its urbanised elite messaged and expressed their approval on social media with comments like “Well done Pakistan. Very proud of my country.” One response, however, offered a telling proposal: “This is great. However, a piece of advice. We are not only helping Nepalese but projecting Pakistan’s image abroad. Each package must be individually packed professionally and messaged with Pakistan’s flag and letters ‘Gift from the People of Pakistan.”
The story did not end there. Before long, a section of the Indian media, which had got their knickers in a twist over their bombastic coverage of India’s assistance in Nepal, were putting out news that the ready-to-eat meals distributed by Pakistan contained beef masala, forbidden in a ‘Hindu’ country like Nepal. The Nepal health minister in an interview to an Indian television channel issued an appeal to the Pakistan government not to “ignore the cultural and religious sentiments of Nepal – people should think about our religious and cultural sentiments before sending such food packets.” This storm in a packet died down in time, but not before the Pakistani establishment accused India of attempting to malign its efforts. Aid-giving, it seems, translates into war by other means when it comes to India and Pakistan.
Can Southasia – a region where millions are perilously vulnerable to seismic activity in the Himalaya, where rivers routinely burst their banks and cast ruination on millions, where dense human habitations result in disproportionately higher death tolls during natural disasters – afford such posturing? Where exactly does ‘national interest’ end and regional solidarity begin? Or to turn that question on its head: can regional solidarity trump this artificially constructed notion of ‘national interest’? For the sake of the countless vulnerable people, the faster this happens, the better.
~ Pamela Philipose is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.