G Parthasarathy

Diplomatic bungling over flood relief

G Parthasarathy | Updated on September 05, 2018 Published on September 05, 2018

Kerala floods Wrangle over relief S Gopakumar   -  THE HINDU

UAE’s assistance to Kerala flood victims should have been handled with greater sensitivity by New Delhi

India has a reputation in Arab Gulf countries, where over six million Indian nationals live, of being mature and measured in its reaction to crises situations. When an Indian Airlines aircraft was hijacked in Srinagar and flown to Dubai in 1984, the Dubai authorities acted quickly, to end the hijacking. The hijackers were, thereafter, repatriated to India. Responding to the help from the Ruler of Dubai during the hijacking, India became the first country in the world to permit flights to its airports by the newly established Emirates Airways, controlled by the Dubai Royal Family, after overruling objections by Air India to the Agreement. Moreover, it did so, after consultations with other Gulf countries, ensuring that the new agreement did not adversely affect their interests.

Sadly, there is little knowledge or appreciation of the historical links that Kerala and other coastal States in India have had with the Arab Gulf countries. These links commenced well before the oil boom in the present day Arabian kingdoms, particularly with the individual Emirates, which constitute today’s UAE.

The shipping and trade links between Kerala and Tamil Nadu and the Arab Gulf States, date back to around 500 BC. It was from these shores that the Apostle St. Thomas sailed to India. Islam, thereafter, came to India’s shores, through Arab and Indian traders, while Judaism entered through refugees, fleeing from persecution. These trade and civilisational ties transcended religious considerations. It was only, therefore, natural that when oil wealth changed the lives of residents of the Arab Gulf, the locals, with little engineering and other modern skills, turned to India’s western shores for recruiting professionals, in virtually all walks of life, to replace the departing British.

Benefits for both

This is a relationship that both India and the Arab Gulf States have benefited from, immensely. There are today an estimated six million Indians living in the Arab Gulf States. The largest number, around 2.1 million are in Saudi Arabia, 1.75 million in the UAE and between 3.5 lakhs and 7.2 lakhs each, in Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. Till just over two decades ago, the majority of Indians were made up largely of workers and low paid professionals like plumbers, drivers and carpenters.

The composition today has drastically changed to include IT professionals, doctors, engineers and teachers. Moreover, while these countries, including the UAE, earlier preferred Pakistani nationals, because of religious considerations, the discipline, higher skills and peaceful nature of Indians, have led to a substantial changes in thinking, with Indians now finding many more places, especially where higher management and professional skills are required. Indians are also welcomed, as they do not get involved in Shia-Sunni controversies, or in other tensions and controversies, engulfing the Islamic world.

Indian nationals in the Gulf now remit over $35 billion in foreign exchange annually to India. The major beneficiary of these remittances is Kerala, whose leaders have not exactly adopted policies that encourage industrialisation, or high-tech growth, in the State.

Remittances vital

Remittances from the Gulf, therefore, largely keep Kerala’s economy going. Equally, in most Gulf countries, people from Kerala, with whom their links go back several centuries, are admired for being hard working, disciplined and for living harmoniously, rejecting narrow religious and sectarian considerations. Hindus, Muslims and Christians from Kerala are recruited on the basis of merit and suitability, and not religion alone. There also appear to be misgivings in the UAE, whose rulers are tolerant and modern-minded, because a number of Pakistani nationals have shown manifestations of sectarian and other practices, which are considered unacceptable.

Over the past few weeks, the media in UAE have been flooded with reports of the misery and suffering, which the cyclone has brought to people in Kerala. The Royal family in Dubai has been particularly empathetic towards people from Kerala, many of who have access to the Royalty, across the UAE. It was in these circumstances that the rulers in the UAE expressed their anguish at the sufferings of people in Kerala and voiced their readiness to offer immediate help. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has developed a close rapport with the rulers of the UAE, responded immediately and positively, while tweeting his thanks to them.

With the Chief Minister of Kerala avoidably asserting that he had received figures of aid from the UAE amounting in $100 million, New Delhi reacted strongly. The External Affairs Ministry came out with a routine statement, reiterating that all “aid” should be routed through appropriate channels. New Delhi should have recognised that what was on offer was not “aid” but “disaster relief.” Good sense seems to have ultimately prevailed and aircraft of the Emirates Airlines commenced flying in plane loads of relief supplies. But, was it wise to publicly respond to actions of rulers of friendly countries, merely by quoting chapter and verse of our bureaucratic rules and regulations? More so, when well meaning foreign rulers of important and friendly countries personally offer help during a crisis?

Surely, if we intended to be firm on sticking to our guidelines, we could have stated, while welcoming the gesture of our friends in the UAE that we would work out the modalities with them, before the relief assistance they had offered, started flowing in.

The airlift by the Emirates Airways could have commenced, while mutually agreed upon modalities were being discussed and finalised. People in Kerala, where over 324 people perished in the floods and over 300,000 were rendered homeless, would certainly have welcomed this.

And people across the country, who empathised with and expressed solidarity with their sufferings, would have welcomed relief supplies reaching their flood affected fellow citizens.

Need to reciprocate

We should also have realised the need for sensitivity and understanding in dealing with the UAE, especially after its rulers had shown such regard for the sentiments of our nationals living there.

Our nationals in the Gulf remitted back $37 billion in 2017, with the largest amount of $13.8 billion coming from the UAE. Moreover, the UAE is our second largest export market in the world after the US, with our exports estimated at $30 billion in 2017.

The UAE also ranks as our third largest trading partner in the world, after the US and China. Publicly and peremptorily rejecting a well-meaning offer of assistance from a friendly country, in these circumstances, was avoidable and indeed unfortunate.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on September 05, 2018
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