India Holds to its Self-Reliance

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Self-sufficiency is a stance as deeply rooted in India as its fight to cast off its colonizers. Mahatma Gandhi wore only khadi, or homespun cloth. The gesture, tied to a boycott of textiles made in Britain, signified that the country did not want to – nor did it have to – rely on foreign masters. Independent India banned Coca-Cola for more than a decade, drinking the homegrown Thums Up, instead.

So Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s declaration after the December tsunami that India could handle its immediate disaster-relief efforts on its own was not out of character.

Though this inward instinct has begun to slacken in the last decade, the idea that “we are capable of handling our own affairs is still there, and India wants to demonstrate that it is indeed capable,” said Gautam Adhikari, a former executive editor of one of India’s most widely circulated English dailies, the Times of India, and now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The rejection of help from other governments points to India’s bid to be the predominant power in the region and a player on the world stage. And, unlike other countries in the tsunami disaster zone, India has resources to marshal for its own relief efforts.

What’s more, it is eager to show that it can help other affected countries. It is one of Sri Lanka’s largest relief funders and has sent troops to the island nation to help distribute aid. India, with an economic growth rate second only to China’s, also finds itself in the company of the industrialized First World as the only developing nation on the committee coordinating disaster relief in the region. (The others are the United States, Japan and Australia.)

“That’s an important thing for India… to be involved as sort of an equal partner in that,” said writer Mira Kamdar, an expert on U.S.-India relations and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York. “They have real capabilities there. It’s not like they [First World nations] are doing some sort of favor by letting them into this club.”

India’s position on aid from foreign governments “is a signal of its notion of itself as a player rather than a victim,” she said. “India has ambitions to play this kind of a role, and it is in fact starting to play this role. It’s not just a fantasy.”

Still, India’s response to the disaster will be a significant test for a country that wants a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and, more generally in world affairs, one at the grown-ups’ table.

The tsunami’s death toll in India was 10,000; many thousands more lost their livelihoods, and property damage was $1.5 billion. Though the government intends to handle immediate relief itself, it has tacitly acknowledged that it could use some help for the longer term.

On Tuesday, the government approached the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank for financial assistance for such projects as rebuilding roads and helping fishermen who lost boats to devise a way to make a living.

This can be viewed as a relatively minor call for outside assistance. India’s needs are small when set against the scale of loss in Indonesia and Sri Lanka and the strength of its liberalized and increasingly tech-driven economy. (India not only drinks Coca-Cola now, the government also welcomes the multinationals and the likes of Microsoft on its soil.)

Along with new levels of prosperity, India notably possesses a significant infrastructure for dealing with the aftermath of nature’s wrath. Calamities – drought, floods, earthquakes, tidal waves – come India’s way with a relentlessness that is almost rhythmic. “Every year, there is something or the other happening,” said Adhikari of the American Enterprise Institute. “So, there’s experience.”

The government runs institutes such as the Center for Disaster Management, which offers courses for civil servants of nearly every stripe, from police officers to forestry bureaucrats. The Famine Relief Handbook is a well-thumbed resource for Indian administrators. Every district collector studies it and knows it.

“They’ve been handling famines effectively since the 19th century,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of a book about Indian disaster relief published in the 1970s.

Also, thousands of nongovernmental organizations are at work in India. Most are locally grown, though international agencies such as Oxfam also have branches there.

The opening of the Indian economy has enhanced the country’s ability to stand on its own. So has its export of a chief asset: its most skilled and well-educated people. Every year, millions in charitable donations flow homeward from Indians abroad. Their investments in the Indian economy, factoring in remittances, venture capital, and foreign-exchange deposits, are in the billions, according to investment firm Goldman Sachs.

India is also trying to tap into the wealth of its diaspora, the second-largest worldwide, at 20 million people. The country, eloquently, has a Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs.

Fortuitously, earlier this month Bombay hosted the third annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, or Festival of Indians Abroad, a four-day gathering of 1,400 prominent expatriates. The government honored 15 of them, including a quartet of Americans: filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, Silicon Valley telecommunications guru Sam Pitroda, economist Jagdish Bhagwati, and political scientist Sunil Khilnani. (Shyamalan, who lives in Gladwyne, did not attend.)

More than accolades was on the agenda. At the last minute, organizers added a special plenary session titled “Disaster Management Reconstruction and Rehabilitation: Role of Overseas Indians.” Many of those present pledged contributions to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. And India’s President Abdul Kalam asked them to raise $100 million to set up and endow a foundation for earthquake research.

India’s ability to manage its post-tsunami recovery does not diminish one of the problems that has long plagued the country: sectarianism. Nongovernmental organization personnel working with the coastal communities in Tamil Nadu, the most severely hit state, have heard complaints about discrimination against lower-caste groups in the distribution of aid.

Walter Andersen, a South Asia scholar who was vacationing along the Sri Lankan coast when the tsunami flooded the first floor of his hotel, attributed the problem in part to local bureaucrats, who are “reluctant to go against local customs, which include caste distinctions.”

Andersen, an associate director of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, supports the premise that India will be able to recover from the tsunami largely on its own. “Whether or not there’s inefficiency or caste prejudices, I don’t think there’s a question of financial resources,” he said. “As far as I know, they don’t need the help.”

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