There is no shame in taking the help extended to us by friends.
Earlier this week, on 20-21 August, I travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, where I held a series of high-level briefings with the senior leadership of the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and the International Red Cross to brief them on the devastating humanitarian crisis of flooding in Kerala.
This visit has, within many quarters of the cacophonic Indian media and belligerent political class, been singled out, misconstrued and maligned in an assortment of ways.
Let me set the record straight.
Over the course of the two days, I engaged in meetings with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Director-General of the UN Office at Geneva, the Deputy Director-General of Emergency Preparedness and Response of WHO and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The mission, undertaken in my individual capacity and at my own expense, was driven by the following purpose: Should the Government of India, based on the requirement put forward by the state government of Kerala, reach out to the international community for humanitarian assistance, what were the possible avenues through which these actors could complement the massive on ground operations, which were and would encompass the 5 R’s in the state? These are Rescue (this is now almost over, due to the stellar performance of the armed forces, the NDRF, local fishermen groups and ordinary individuals), Relief (this was well under control thanks to the efficiency of the state administration and the solidarity of the Indian public), Risk of diseases (this needed to be assessed), Rehabilitation (a medium-term challenge) and Rebuilding (a long-term challenge).
The discussions and deliberations were well-received by the respective branches of the international system focused on responding to health emergencies, disaster management and mitigation, and each meeting consciously targeted the international bodies that could best cater to and assist the needs of Kerala.
For instance, in the discussion with the OCHA, the designated body of the UN tasked with coordination among humanitarian actors and funding bodies in the event of an emergency, the need for a rapid assessment of sector-wide damage and loss assessment for recovery planning was stressed, in addition to the need to implement the valuable lessons we have learnt from similar situations in other countries. The UN said it was ready to offer technical assistance, long-term preparedness interventions and even help channel funds and resources for reconstruction needs in the state via an international conference of interested countries and competent stakeholders.
Similarly, the WHO mentioned they were closely monitoring the situation on ground, particularly since the flooding could potentially lead to an outbreak of communicable diseases (both vector and water-borne) like cholera, leptospirosis, hepatitis A, dengue and typhoid fever. While the grave risk of a possible epidemic outbreak in the state was a very real possibility, to counter this, the WHO had pointed out that they were in a position to offer Kerala rapid diagnostics kits to test water and water filters and that India was welcome to access WHO’s global stockpile of anti-cholera vaccines (2 million doses of current stocks estimated). The WHO could, in addition, help create disaster-preparedness programmes and early warning systems, as well as improve surveillance on a local and state level.
Finally, in my deliberations with the ICRC, while it was agreed that their classic mandate for conflict areas does not apply to India, its Centre of Excellence at Gujarat Forensic Sciences University could help in dealing with the sensitive management of fatalities. ICRC’s experience in helping create rehabilitation plans for displaced populations is also something that the authorities could draw upon in the weeks and months ahead as we rebuild Kerala.
While a more comprehensive version of my deliberations is now out in the public domain and can be accessed on my Facebook page, in summary, based on these conversations, my conclusions and recommendations (which were promptly shared with chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his office) were as follows:
- State government could examine whether it requires a multi-sector needs assessment by UN agencies (WHO, UNICEF, OCHA);
- Depending on whether the quantum of long-term reconstruction assistance from the central government is adequate, the state government could give thought to holding an international reconstruction conference to ‘Rebuild Kerala Better’ in partnership with the UN system so that significant international assistance in reconstruction can be facilitated;
- State government could request for the 2 million WHO stock of anti-cholera vaccines to minimise the risk of grave water-borne diseases;
- State government could accept ICRC/Gujarat Forensic Sciences University support as appropriate;
- Since the Government of India does not wish to request international assistance directly, it is entirely feasible to operationalise any and all of the above by negotiating with the UN system to have the UN offer what we need, on a no-objection basis from the GoI.
When I had publicly shared these recommendations, some were quick to point to previous comments that I had made, which had politely pointed out that seeking international assistance was the prerogative of the central and state government, arguing that, by my own logic, my visit was seemingly a flawed PR exercise.
Some have categorically decried my actions as that of a Parliamentarian having abandoned his constituency and the state at large in its hour of need, others have accused me of acting independent of any directive from the state government and the Centre, and some have even, rather bizarrely, suggested that my visit has prompted the Government of India to decline the generous voluntary financial assistance that has been offered by the UAE and a host of other nations, presumably keeping the country’s prestige in mind, and consequently increased the financial burden on the state.
The first suggestion is blatantly fallacious, promoted by some with the mischievous intent of spreading despair in the hearts of the affected. At a time when the same sections of the media and ruling dispensation were seemingly preoccupied elsewhere, I was in my constituency, working round the clock to alleviate the troubles of my people, as is my constitutionally mandated duty.
My presence there was divided between the time spent in relief camps that housed the displaced in my constituency, or working in close coordination with the district administration to ensure that the relief and resources that were pouring in were effectively delivered to those who needed it the most. It was only when the troubles and water had begun to subside in Thiruvananthapuram, which has fortunately been one of the lesser affected districts in the state, and my duty fulfilled, did I concentrate my energy and attention towards identifying other avenues through which I could secure the medium and long-term future of our state and its people.
As I continue to maintain, the prerogative of seeking international assistance certainly remains with the state and central government. But even here, as a concerned Malayalee, a proud Indian and former UN Under-Secretary-General with a proven track record of almost three decades, I had a moral responsibility to reach out to my networks in the international humanitarian community and explore possibilities of international assistance and support to alleviate the sufferings of fellow Keralites, and place these recommendations before the state government for its consideration and, if found necessary, with the central government too. In other words, the purpose of my visit to Geneva was to ensure that the state government is armed with all the information and options possible as it charts the course of rehabilitation and rebuilding a new Kerala.
My outreach was in my individual capacity as the people’s representative for Thiruvananthapuram and I did not claim to be representing either the state government or the Indian National Congress, though I consulted the chief minister before my meetings and briefed my party’s president after. My critics forget that the party I am proud to belong to has no part in the administration of the Centre or the state at present. However, in this challenging hour, parties across the spectrum have, with a few notable exceptions, strived to put aside their differences and have rallied together to help the people of Kerala. In other words, there are no partisan political wins to be had here – only a desire to help during an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the state.
On the last point of foreign aid, interestingly in several of my meetings, the ‘Bhuj Model’ of utilisation of foreign aid was brought up, where initially, through the medium of an international aid conference, as I have also recommended, foreign humanitarian funding was channelled into Gujarat, which helped kick start the rebuilding and rehabilitation process in a significant way in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of 2001.
Similarly, 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. Protocol on matters such as this cannot and must not be decided by the issue of ‘prestige’ (even the US for instance openly accepted voluntary aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005). Rather, it must be based on the scale of the devastation, the needs of the victims and the quantum of funds that will be realistically required to get the state back on its feet.
The flooding is over. The rebuilding must begin. We are not alone in the world and there is no shame in taking the help extended to us by friends.
Dr Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied history at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 17 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is ‘Why I am a Hindu’. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor.