Corruption and quality of Indian mercy

Ranjit Devraj

India is a country notorious for middlemen who specialise in siphoning away development funds. And voluntary agencies are struggling to ensure that the deluge of monetary aid pouring in for the survivors of the tsunami actually reach the ones most in need. ‘’We are trying to chalk up a methodology to ensure that the money we are collecting gets to the most marginalised people, especially women, children and Dalits,’’ said Swapnil Srivastava, speaking to IPS on behalf of 38 voluntary groups in New Delhi that have banded together — under the umbrella of the Indian Social Institute — for the relief effort.

Although the tsunami killed more than 10,000 Indians in southern Tamil Nadu state and the far-flung island territory of Andaman and Nicobar, the government in keeping with traditional policy of handling its own grief, refused international aid and asked the UN to direct its efforts to other affected Asian countries. India was the first off the block with aid and sent its warships laden with emergency relief to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia. And it even went to the extent of asking UN Secretary General Kofi Annan not to include the country in his recent tour of tsunami-affected areas in South and South-east Asia. But late last week though India made a request to the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank for assistance in reconstruction and rehabilitation work and in building early warning systems against future tsunamis and natural disasters. Internally, images of the tragedy aired by television channels brought on an unprecedented outpouring of generosity from Indians and the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund alone has collected more than a billion US dollars with money still coming in. Still, collecting funds is one thing and translating it into tangible benefits for the survivors is another. Already the media has exposed racketeering by suppliers caught cheating on the quality of tarpaulins that were needed in large quantities to immediately shelter people whose homes were washed away by the waves.

There were also reports of a black market in grain meant for distribution in Tamil Nadu but ending up in other parts of the country. This is a stark reminder of the case when 22,000 tonnes of food grain meant for a poverty alleviation programme in southern Karnataka state ended up being sold, last year, to a Swiss charity for free distribution in Africa. Curiously enough, the tsunami struck just when the government had embarked on an ambitious poverty reduction drive based on a guaranteed employment scheme which economists and critics said would never benefit the poor in India’s vast rural hinterland but only serve to increase corruption levels. The January 2001 earthquake that devastated large parts of western Gujarat saw such dishonesty. Last year, the global corruption watchdog Transparency International ranked India among the world’s 50 most corrupt countries in its Corruption Perception Index.

But Muqbil Ahmed, president of the Jawaharalal Nehru Students Union, said corruption was not unique to India and pointed to the ‘oil-for food’ programme in Iraq which rocked the UN last year. He was confident that transparency, proper vigilance and elimination of middlemen would go a long way in addressing the problem of the tsunami. — IPS