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It's our turn to help in Haiti

March 22, 2010 14:26 IST

It's time for us to think big, proportionate to our size. By contributing in a big way to the relief operations in quake-hit Haiti, India is making its debut into the league of big nations, writes Manjeet Kripalani.

When India is hit by calamity, the world responds generously. The United States, the Red Cross, Britain, Israel, the United Nations, Oxfam, Medcins Sans Frontiers -- they fly in expertise and provisions in the form of doctors, social and health workers, rescue teams, medicines, food, shelter equipment.

Over the last 20 years, India has been hit by 10 natural calamities, and the world has been there each time. The World Bank alone has provided an estimated $8 billion in aid for natural disaster relief. India has also learned to help itself -- a rising economy resulted in the new middle class extending its wealth, compassion and expertise to those affected by the 2004 tsunami. Consequently, we have developed a wide range of internal skills and processes in disaster management.

Now it's our turn to help others. The most dire need at this time is in Haiti, a poor island-nation hit by an earthquake January 12 which decimated the capital of Port-au-Prince and the country's only functional institution -- its government, and the precious few educated professionals of the country. The world moved in almost immediately -- the US, Brazil and Israel were immediately there in force with troops, mobile hospitals, aircraft and humanitarian aid.  The rest followed: Europeans, Mexicans, Brazilians, Argentines.

And wonderfully, so did India. Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor cut short a 12-day trip to South America and headed to Haiti. It wasn't only because his dear friend, Luiz Carlos da Costa, the UN's special representative to Haiti, perished as the UN headquarters in Port-au-Prince collapsed -- Tharoor stood on the rubble of the building, and laid a wreath on it to mourn his friend. But it was also because he correctly judged this to be the moment to let the world see India demonstrate its desire and ability to be a caring global citizen.

Tharoor pledged $5 million (about Rs 18 crore) in aid to Haiti on behalf of New Delhi -- the money was deposited in cash in the UN's account for Haiti relief in 24 hours.

Indians have sensed this moment, and are taking their cue from Tharoor. Mumbai, India's most cosmopolitan city, has led the way. The Mumbai-based Mahindra Group, whose dealership in the Haitian capital was damaged, donated two trucks and two tractors for relief efforts in short order. And citizens are stepping in. A major fund-raiser March 21 in Mumbai was organised by a medley of businessmen, Bollywood stars like Aamir Khan and Anil Kapoor, sports stars like Leander Paes, dancer Shiamak Davar, local artists and international diplomats.

The turnout was tremendous -- 800 of the city's best raised an estimated Rs. 2 crore to aid Haiti's children through the local Rotary Clubs.  

This will, perhaps, be India's first civilian international fund-raising effort -- and we should view it as the first of many in our contribution to humane causes in the world.

It's not just because we want a seat on the UN Security Council that India should be in the frontline of helpful nations. Aid certainly helps in that 'hard power' pursuit. Helping Afghanistan rebuild is one such effort; so was the dispatch of naval medical ships by New Delhi to Sri Lanka and Indonesia after the tsunami of December 2006.

"If you want to be taken seriously, you have to get your feet wet and your hands dirty," says C Uday Bhaskar, the former director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi and now with the National Maritime Foundation. "Besides, Haitians are present in large numbers in North America, and that's reason enough to get involved."

But real politik apart, India has something else to offer the world today: its development model. This kind of assistance is a natural extension of our unique evolution as a developing country with products and services -- even emergency care and disaster relief -- of high quality and affordable cost. Instead of the expensive prostheses that the West is sending Haitian amputees, for instance, how much more cost-effective the $20 (about Rs 900) Jaipur foot can be. India has been able to create such innovations into the bloodstream of a diverse and poor nation. 

Finally, it's because India must begin again to demonstrate what it has exported for centuries -- compassion. Buddhism and Jainism, both faiths that grew out of Hinduism, embody this. "India's moral values are the ones the world needs," says Paul Folmsbee, the US Consul General in Mumbai, who served in Haiti from 2003-06. This is the soft power that India can rightly claim as its own.

It's time for us to think big, proportionate to our size. Mumbai's citizens are showing that they care -- and by so doing, making India's debut into the league of big nations.

Manjeet Kripalani is the executive director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai.

Manjeet Kripalani