After Worst Kerala Floods in a Century, India Rejects Foreign Aid
By Ayesha Venkataraman, Suhasini Raj and Maria Abi-Habib
MUMBAI, India — After devastating floods killed more than 400 people and engulfed entire towns in a southern state in India, the United Arab Emirates offered $100 million to help the recovery.
The Indian government’s response: thanks, but no thanks.
Indian officials, in turning down the offer on Wednesday, said the country had a longstanding policy of relying on domestic resources, which they insist are adequate. Since a giant tsunami hit India’s southern coast in 2004, killing at least 10,000 people, they say, the central government has built up a disaster relief agency, modeling it on the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But many critics, while commending India’s national government for a quick response to the disaster in the state of Kerala, worry that it has not committed nearly enough money to help Kerala rebuild.
The central government has promised $85 million for the recovery from the floods this month, the worst in Kerala state since 1924. This is not only less than the amount offered by the United Arab Emirates, it is a tiny fraction of the $3 billion damage estimate by the state finance minister, Thomas Isaac.
Although the floodwaters receded this week, they left astonishing devastation. In addition to more than 400 deaths, about 1.8 million people were displaced and entire towns and major public works were submerged, including the state’s main international airport.
“The government of India deeply appreciates offers from several countries, including from foreign governments, to assist in relief and rehabilitation efforts after the tragic floods,”a spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs, Raveesh Kumar, said late Wednesday night.
“In line with the existing policy, the government is committed to meeting the requirements for relief and rehabilitation through domestic efforts.”
The government has asked individuals and international foundations that want to contribute to do so through the existing relief funds of India’s prime minister or the chief minister of Kerala, which allows them to control how the money is spent.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi views nongovernmental organizations with deep suspicion, suspecting them of being vehicles of foreign influence, bent on undermining India’s development.
The government of Kerala state, though, insists that India’s laws permit the central government to accept foreign assistance. They point to the 2016 National Disaster Management Plan, which was approved by Mr. Modi’s governing party, to make their case.
Because New Delhi declined the U.A.E.’s offer, Kerala officials said the central government should compensate the state for the loss and pledge more aid.
In Kerala, some politicians see the central government’s rejection of the Emirati offer as punishment for the state’s lackluster support for the national governing Bharatiya Janata Party.
“I think the reason the central government might have taken that stand is because of political discrimination, as we are a leftist government in Kerala,” Mr. Isaac, Kerala’s finance minister, said in a telephone interview.
Communist parties, which are extremely influential in Kerala, currently lead the state government. In contrast, the national governing party, known as the BJP, is widely viewed as a right-wing party that courts Hindu hard-liners.
Others see India’s rejection of the Emirati offer as a matter of pride, an attempt to dispel the old stereotype of the country as wracked by extreme poverty, incapable of taking care of its own citizens and beholden to the altruism of foreign governments.
Mr. Modi has championed India as the world’s next great power, and he has tried to make the country more self- sufficient in many respects, including industrially.
“India would like to become or at least change its identity from an aid receiver to an aid giver,” said Harsh Pant, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a research organization based in New Delhi.
But the strategic posturing is bumping up against Kerala’s grim realities.
“The wells have been contaminated with carcasses of dead animals and filled with mud,” said Esther Mariaselvam, a regional manager for Action Aid, a nonprofit organization coordinating relief work in Kerala. “The septic tanks need to be rebuilt and the entire sanitation system has to be restored.”
In addition, she said, there are concerns about the supply of clean water.
Some of Mr. Modi’s most vocal supporters among right-wing Hindu nationalist groups have cast the floods as punishment for Kerala’s longstanding culture of eating beef, a contentious issue for Hindus who consider cows to be sacred.
Swami Chakrapani, the chief of a Hindu nationalist party, said that while Kerala needs help, the aid should be reserved for observant Hindus.
“Help should be given to those who respect nature and creatures,”Mr. Chakrapani said.
“When roti was available to people in Kerala, they were slaughtering the cow to eat her meat,” he added, referring to an Indian flatbread. “What I mean is that Hindus should provide help to those who avoid cow meat.”
Ayesha Venkataraman reported from Mumbai and Suhasini Raj and Maria Abi-Habib from New Delhi.