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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Post-colonial British angst at Indian disdain for aid

By Swapan Dasgupta

There were facets of this year's Union Budget that were subjected to searing criticism in a country hungry for rapid growth and a better life. Income tax payers were disappointed that the exemption limit wasn't raised further; the health sector flayed the 'misery tax' on air-conditioning in hospitals; the National Advisory Council and NGOs tore into the freeze in welfare spending; and the Left mocked the concessions extended to the corporate sector. It was all very predictable and democracy as usual.

However, if the British media was the definitive guide to India, the most controversial feature of the Budget was the allocation of nearly Rs 178 crore to the Human Space Flight and Chandrayan missions—a provision that, at best, secured a footnote mention in India. Space travel is a "luxury" that India "cannot afford" lamented Stephen Glover in Daily Mail: it "should be spending less on defence and nothing on its space programme, and diverting more funds to the alleviation of poverty." Poverty will persist, declaimed Gerald Warner in a Daily Telegraph blog, "as long as the Indian Government indulges in a space programme while millions of its underclass sleep in the streets." To him, "more reprehensible than the financial cost…is the ISRO's monopolising of 1,000 scientists who could be engaged on work of more service to humanity."

Before xenophobes and professional "anti-imperialists" launch a star wars against perfidious Albion, some clarification may be in order. The average man on the Clapham omnibus doesn't give a toss for ISRO's grand plan to plant the tricolour on the moon. He is preoccupied (and understandably so) with high food prices, savage public spending cuts, the Duke of York's shenanigans and the Premier League. So for that matter is Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph—the authentic voices of Middle England. So, why this obsession with a space programme that may even have spin-off benefits for British companies?

Mammon is the villain. At a time the Britain is teetering precariously between recovery and bankruptcy, the Department of International Development has sanctioned £300 million (around Rs 2,190 crore) of its £2.9 billion budget for aid to India. Some 90 countries are to receive British government aid but India is the biggest beneficiary.

The outrage is understandable. Why, it is being asked, should the UK underwrite a country whose rulers love playing "space cadets", a country that boasts 69 dollar billionaires (compared to Britain's paltry 29), a country with a predicted 9 per cent GDP growth and a country that has its own overseas aid programme? Rather than Britannia playing Lady Bountiful, couldn't the money be better utilised in 'poverty alleviation' and employment generation schemes at home? After all, UK needs the £300 million more than does India.

The arguments are compelling and a restive House of Commons has despatched a dozen MPs from a Parliamentary Select Committee to travel to the boon docks to examine how the money is being spent on the ground. Is aid the euphemism for a gravy train of 'development consultants' and sanctimonious NGOs? Or, is British aid making a difference and "saving lives" in the four states where DfID programmes are operational? Will the withdrawal of £300 million of aid prompt the BBC to proclaim in a suitably quaking tone that India is faced with an impending "humanitarian disaster"?

What could make the task of the visiting delegation either easier or more difficult are two awkward facts. First, the £300 million constitutes less than one per cent the State and Union governments spend on health and welfare schemes. This makes the emotional claims of a special British role in preventing a Darfur in Darbhanga seem contrived, if not self-serving. Secondly—and this is something Britons burdened with post-colonial angst find unpalatable—India has clearly indicated it will be unmoved if the £300 million of British taxpayers' money is spent elsewhere. This doesn't indicate India's "ingratitude", as one Times columnist angrily suggested, but it does suggest realism and a rejection of a self-degrading entitlement culture.

There is something else the MPs must consider: the palliative role of aid. Both the proponents and opponents of British aid to India have used the debate to flay an imaginary opponent—the uncaring Indian elite obsessed with glitzy symbols of 'national pride'. The disgust may well be aesthetic but it is also laced with profound envy. The gloom and doom of Britain is being juxtaposed with the brashness of Indian resurgence. There is an emerging caricature of Indian fat cats overwhelming Oxford Street and buying up British companies. Aid gives some Britons a handle to look virtuous and feel superior.

India needn't react with prickliness but with the indulgence due to outbursts of gap year insolence. We too must learn to be grown up.

Sunday Times of India, March 13, 2011

3 comments:

balaji said...

The naivety of the British Journalist comments only shows their post colonial attitude. India needs to invest in Space technology because it will enhance our space programme resulting in prospective business opportunities for our rockets as our rockets cost almost 10 times less than any US or European rockets.If India does manage to enhance its rocket weight capabilities we would almost monopolise the rocket business. This is what this post colonial idiot journo is worried about and tries to use the usual "poor" rhetoric to state HEHE you are poor look at this idiot indians trying to come up to our colonial class" Such racist journos exist in disguise as a pro poor platform just like the way theu support the Maoists.For 60 years the Western Media has ignored the Maoists when India barely grew but suddenly when India is growing at around 9-10% The western Journos seems to hjave a renewed interest in them.AS responsible Indian citizens we have a duty to our poor people that we develop our technological capabilities so that we dont have to create hundreds of thousands of jobs outside India like in the US or UK through nuclear and Defence deals. Time for indigenous nuclear,defense and space deals to improve our fiscal situation(as our capabilities will come at a far less cost) and the job multiplier effect it will have on our social sector thereby helping the same poor the idiot journo was alluding to

ayan said...

Being of somewhat conservative in thinking, I generally like your posts. Not this time. It filled me with discomfort. I cannot say that factually what you say is untrue but perhaps your writing itself shows how over the top Indian reactions can be. I was embarrassed noticing it appeared on the Sunday Times rather than The Darbhanga Times (if there's one) or Bartaman, ensuring less prominence. One cannot accuse you of an understated style!

Any person, unless autistic should try to understand others' actions and thinking. I wonder if you ever paused to think if there is good intent behind the £300 million? Those in Whitehall who made the decision were well aware of the ridicule they will receive from both Indian and British press (indeed, last year there was a similar reaction at least in the UK press). Despite this why this decision then?

Finally, India may be growing at 9% but most European citizens would find the India's income disparity unacceptable in there own country and frankly, so should we. Let our nationalism not completely overcome our sense of patriotism.

Some truths better remain unspoken.

ayan said...

Being of somewhat conservative in thinking, I generally like your posts. Not this time. It filled me with discomfort. I cannot say that factually what you say is untrue but perhaps your writing itself shows how over the top Indian reactions can be. I was embarrassed noticing it appeared on the Sunday Times rather than The Darbhanga Times (if there's one) or Bartaman, ensuring less prominence. One cannot accuse you of an understated style!

Any person, unless autistic should try to understand others' actions and thinking. I wonder if you ever paused to think if there is good intent behind the £300 million? Those in Whitehall who made the decision were well aware of the ridicule they will receive from both Indian and British press (indeed, last year there was a similar reaction at least in the UK press). Despite this why this decision then?

Finally, India may be growing at 9% but most European citizens would find the India's income disparity unacceptable in there own country and so should we. Let our nationalism not completely overcome our sense of patriotism.

Some truths better remain unspoken.