The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Why did India donate money to the US for hurricane relief'

There is absolutely no justification for the United Progressive Alliance government's puzzling decision to donate five million dollars of Indian public money for relief activity in America's southern states, which have been hit by Hurricane Katrina. Any diplomatic rationale that went into the decision, to say the least, is questionable. But the donation is also morally repugnant and ethically unacceptable.

Having said that, the UPA government deserves praise for its offer to swiftly despatch to the United States of America a team from the Indian Army Medical Corps, including a surgeon, an anaesthetist, doctors, nurses and paramedical personnel, who have had first-hand experience of conditions such as the ones now prevailing in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and parts of Florida. The Indian Army and Navy did a commendable ' and by no means surprising ' job of speedily assembling an Illyushin-76 military transporter, which was equipped in record time with dinghies, naval boats and other relief infrastructure, including human infrastructure such as navy divers, to ensure that the team's relief work in the aftermath of the hurricane would be self-supporting instead of putting any strain on the resources of the Bush administration or of the affected states as they perform their woefully inadequate tasks of helping the sick and those displaced by the disaster.

Those in New Delhi, who chipped into the decision at inter-ministerial meetings last week to ensure that water purification systems for households and communities would be included in the offer made to the Americans knew exactly what they were doing. Any Indian team sent to America's south under today's conditions would do a commendable job of what they are sent for: because they have immense experience of the third-world conditions that now prevail in New Orleans or in the Mississippi town of Biloxi, which, until a few days ago, thrived from gambling.

But Indian public money for America's hurricane relief' No way! New Delhi's decision to give away five million dollars to the American Red Cross is ethically unacceptable because the American reality of their Red Cross is very different from official India's illusion or imagination of what that organization is. Did those in New Delhi, who approved the decision to donate Indian taxpayers' money to the American Red Cross, know that the organization's president, Bernadine Healy, resigned in disgrace only six weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001'

Those were the weeks when money was pouring into the coffers of the American Red Cross. Americans, who could not go to Ground Zero and help in clearing the debris of the Twin Towers and to look for those who had perished in the terrorist attack, believed it was their patriotic duty to give. Not only ordinary Americans, but companies too. The day after the attack, Microsoft and General Electric both donated $10 million each to the Twin Towers Fund which had barely been set up. Cisco pledged six million dollars to the American Red Cross and Sprint gave half a million. A 'Liberty Fund' set by the American Red Cross closed even before it fully opened for donations because it had received whopping contributions totalling as much as $547 million.

But what followed was scandalous. The American Red Cross spent $109 million of the money collected for September 11 relief on improving its telecommunications and databases while another $55 million went to what it euphemistically described as 'community outreach' and 'administrative costs'. New York state has an attorney general, Elliot Spitzer, who is feared by corrupt corporations and public bodies. Spitzer proposed that all funds collected for September 11-related relief should be administered through a single centralized database. The Red Cross rejected Spitzer's proposal.

Typically, the circumstances under which Healy resigned were given a coat of whitewash. But in the weeks before she quit, it was revealed that of all the money that the American Red Cross had collected, only a fraction ' about $40 million ' had actually been spent on September 11-related victim-relief. In the weeks after, the scandal took a toll of Healy's job and the organization came under pressure, there were reports in the US media that American Red Cross officials went door-to-door in downtown Manhattan trying to give money away. 'If you refused, or if you said, 'No, give this to someone who needs it,' they looked at you with a pitying eye,' wrote Pete Hamill, a columnist in the New York tabloid, Daily News.

Allegations of corruption in the American Red Cross predate its September 11 windfall. Its branch in Hudson County of New Jersey, for instance, was in the national headlines when there were allegations that local Red Cross officials had pocketed as much as one million dollars of public money, donated for worthy causes. It is to such an organization that the Manmohan Singh government has thrown away as much as five million dollars of Indian taxpayers' money.

It is surprising that officials of the Indian embassy in Washington did not alert New Delhi about the scandalous record of the American Red Cross before such a large amount of Indian public funds was deposited with that organization. The only logical explanation is that the turnover of diplomats at the Washington mission being high in the last one year, and since institutional memory in the Indian foreign service is virtually non-existent, no one knew about the scandalous past of the American Red Cross.

Notwithstanding such a charitable explanation, the question begs an answer: was there any need for India to offer money to the Americans' Kuwait is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. It is also a solid US ally, an ally which owes its very existence as a sovereign nation to America's military might. Last weekend, Kuwait duly came out with its show of solidarity with hurricane-hit America by donating $500 million worth of oil products. Now, that is the kind of help that the Americans will appreciate, with petrol prices at a record high and fears of an automobile fuel shortage creating long queues and law enforcement problems. Japan offered some cash, but the bulk of its aid offer is also in the form of tents, blankets, power generators, portable water-tanks and more from a supply depot maintained by the Japanese government in Florida.

Another US ally, Thailand, which even sent troops to Iraq, decided that it was best to send 100 doctors and nurses. Thailand is an Asian Tiger and could have given much more money to the Americans than India. But it chose to offer something that the US needs urgently, something Washington would value much more than money. It is not surprising that the only country which the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, chose to single out during her media briefing last week was Sri Lanka, which made a modest donation of $25,000 for the hurricane victims. Rice said: 'I want to note in particular that we received a generous offer of support from Sri Lanka, a country that, as we speak, is still recovering from its own massive natural disaster.'

One reason why New Delhi's five million dollars is worth less than Sri Lanka's contribution of $25,000 is because India is seen here, at least in some circles, as becoming part of the world's big league. A contribution of five million dollars from an emerging global power is paltry compared to the expectations that India's rise into the Big League have generated. On Tuesday, this newspaper carried a story of how Sonia Gandhi was distraught by what she saw at a hospital in Uttar Pradesh which is treating those infected by Japanese encephalitis. It is morally repugnant that India should squander five million dollars on an organization like the American Red Cross when half of that money could work wonders for public healthcare in Uttar Pradesh.

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