Kerala floods: Much ado about the Rs 700 crore UAE aid that never was; petty politics belittles India’s image

It happens only in India. The entire country suffered a meltdown over Centre allegedly “blocking” UAE’s “offer” of ₹700 crore towards flood relief work in Kerala without bothering to check the veracity of the information. It now turns out that no such offer for financial aid was formally placed on the table by the UAE government. The situation, to put it mildly, is deeply embarrassing.

Before the UAE had cleared the air, though, accusations had flown faster than Scud missiles and sweeping conclusions were drawn even quicker. Why let facts come in the way of a good outrage? It also needs to be said that the appalling communication strategy of the Narendra Modi government contributed towards the needless controversy, but more on that later.

If one hoped that an apolitical issue such as relief assistance for a flood-ravaged state — battling its worst deluge in 100 years — would be kept outside the purview of partisan politics, that expectation was quickly belied.

The polarised nature of India’s polity and mainstreaming of fact-free outrage in public discourse give rise to frequent, spurious debates. Spurious as these debates are, and little that they contribute towards mitigating the crisis, these controversies can be damaging because they are aimed at hitting on the fault lines of this diverse nation. The Kerala tragedy did not take long to take political overtones. The Opposition first raised the stakes by floating a mischievous demand that the floods be declared a “national disaster”.

The Centre had already declared it a ‘Level 3 calamity’. The L3 classification paves the way for the Centre to extend all possible help that the state needs but the Opposition saw in it an opportunity to score some brownie points and generate a narrative that the Centre is willfully negligent about the tragedy.

As Srinivasa Prasad has written in a piece for Firstpost, “There is no law or provision in India under which a calamity anywhere in the country can be declared a ‘national disaster’. It was either out of sheer ignorance or deliberate political mischief that Kerala’s CPM-led Left Democratic Front government and other Opposition leaders, including Congress president Rahul Gandhi, demanded this label for the Kerala floods.”

From here, the debate became degenerated further. It was suggested that the BJP-ruled Centre is “discriminating against” the southern state of Kerala because it is ruled by a Left Front government. Kerala quickly became a ‘symbol’ of southern resistance against ‘oppression’ of ‘north Indian states’ that feeds off the prosperity of the ‘south’. The Modi government was painted into a parochial corner and accused of being tightfisted with funds — denying the state its right during a time of great distress.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

In an interview to The News Minute, Kerala finance minister Thomas Isaac said: “If the Centre views accepting foreign aid as an issue of dignity, let the Union government give us ₹700 crore. The Centre is neither giving us money, nor allowing anyone else to do it. What kind of attitude is this?”

In an article for The Print, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor wrote, “Given the scale of devastation in Kerala and the lean relief package announced by the Centre (which, currently at Rs 600 crore, is a fraction of what the state government had requested), it seems imperative that the Centre must be open to the idea of accepting foreign aid.”

It is a measure of the bankruptcy of public debates in India that stringent positions are taken on a fact-free environment. First off, nowhere did the Centre assert that the amount of ₹600 crore already released towards flood relief would be the final amount of disbursal. In response to Kerala’s demands of a ₹2600 crore “special package” for rebuilding the state, the Centre has clarified that its disbursal of ₹600 crore was only “an advance”.

The sum of ₹600 crore, as the Centre has clarified in a notification, was disbursed as an “advance assistance” to help the state in meeting relief and rescue expenditure. It was in addition to Rs 562.45 crore already allocated to Kerala’s State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF), in which the Centre contributes 75 percent for general category states. A PIB release added that additional funds would be released from the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) on assessment of the damages by IMCT and decision of the high-level committee.

The Centre has also given a detailed account of the massive rescue and relief operations that it had undertaken and provided specifics on other forms of assistance that it has pledged apart from financial support and rescue efforts. It includes emergency release of provisions and announcement of a number of measures such as ex-gratia payments from PM’s National Relief Funds; building of damaged houses under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana; additional 5.5 crore person days under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), etc.

The Centre, it must be stressed, isn’t doing Kerala a favour. It is merely carrying out its duty. If the Modi government had failed to meet its obligations or been lax in executing its responsibilities, a case could have been made against it. Even with the best of intentions, a government cannot take actions in contravention of procedures. There is nothing to indicate that the Modi government has been guilty of dereliction of duty. In fact, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has clarified that the Centre has not undermined the scale of tragedy.

In an interview to The Economic Times, Vijayan said, “I need to make it clear in no uncertain terms that the Government of India was forthcoming and responded positively. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Rajnath Singh visited the flood-hit areas and have been understanding the situation fully… I am happy that they announced ₹600 crore as two lots (₹100 crore after the first spell of floods and ₹500 crore now) and I am hopeful that they would assess the situation and grant more assistance in the coming days.”

The Kerala chief minister's comments put the criticisms against the Centre in perspective.

The allegations look even more ridiculous in light of the UAE’s recent clarification that it has not made any official announcement for financial assistance of any kind.

In an interview with The Indian Express, UAE Ambassador Ahmed Albanna said: “The assessment of relief needed for the flood and aftermath is ongoing. Announcing any specific amount as financial aid, I don’t think it is final, since it is still ongoing.” On being asked, specifically, if he meant that the UAE had not announced ₹700 crore in aid, the ambassador said: “Yes, that is correct. It is not yet final. It has not been announced.”

All that the UAE government has done is to constitute a “national emergency committee” to take decisions on sourcing out funds, aid material, medicines, etc, for people in Kerala, according to the report. The true nature of the controversy becomes clear when we look at the UAE ambassador’s subsequent statement.

Albanna told The Indian Express that “the national emergency committee is coordinating with the federal authorities, since we know and understand the financial aid rules in India.” He added that the UAE government is working with various agencies to provide humanitarian assistance. This is important. If the UAE was already aware of the Indian rules, why would the country make the mistake of “announcing” a financial aid?

The mention of the aid was first made by the Kerala chief minister’s office through a series of tweets. The ‘CMO Kerala’ handle mentioned on 21 August that the UAE will provide Kerala an “assistance of Rs 700 crore”.

In a subsequent tweet, the source of the news was clarified.

It seems odd that the UAE government would “announce” the assistance despite knowing the rules that govern foreign financial aid to India. Incidentally, the European Union has channeled 190,000 euros to the Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) for immediate relief assistance in compliance with Indian rules.

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India is not averse to foreign assistance, as is being wrongly claimed in certain quarters. However, these must be disbursed through proper channels such as Prime Minister's Relief Fund and the Chief Minister's Relief Fund from NRIs, PIOs and international entities and foundations.

On the ₹700 crore figure, confusion spread even more when it emerged that Malayali businessman and philanthropist Yusuff Ali, chairman and managing director of Abu Dhabi-based LuLu Group International which owns a hypermarket chain, has threatened to take legal action against people who, according to him, are spreading a false claim that he “was ready to contribute Rs 700 crore to Kerala’s flood relief fund if the Centre opposed an equal offer from the United Arab Emirates,” according to a Manorama Online report. The report also points out that “the UAE’s offer was conveyed to Kerala not by the Union government, but by Ali.”

The Centre, too, must share part of the blame for the ongoing confusion. Before the UAE ambassador had cleared the air, it offered no clarification on whether the offer of a specific sum was made. It only issued a generic clarification on rules regarding foreign financial assistance that made the government appear as if it is trying to block external help and putting procedure before people. Its clarification on the fact that ₹600 crore was an “advance” and not the final sum also came late, well after a narrative had taken shape.


Updated Date: Aug 24, 2018 20:58 PM

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