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The Hindu Notes for 31st August 2018

Pride and foreign aid

India’s refusal to take help in times of natural disasters is self-defeating and against the federal spirit

The Central government’s decision to decline offers of humanitarian aid from the United Arab Emirates and other concerned countries for Kerala, in the aftermath of the worst flood in the State in close to a century, is unfortunate. Whichever way one plays it, New Delhi’s unwillingness to accept foreign aid reflects poor judgment, is bad optics, and goes against the spirit of cooperative federalism. Moreover, this decision, when read with the National Democratic Alliance government’s adversarial attitude towards foreign-funded NGO activism in the country, suggests a sense of insecurity and paranoia that hardly befits a rising power.

While the government itself has been very cryptic in its response to the recent foreign aid offers, those in support of the government’s informal decision have essentially made five sets of arguments to justify the government’s decision. Let’s examine their merit.

Policy precedent

The strongest argument by far for refusing foreign aid flows from past policy and practice. It is argued that there is a policy in place since 2004, enunciated by the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, to not accept foreign aid in times of natural disasters. Dr. Singh had stated in the wake of the tsunami in December that year, “We feel that we can cope with the situation on our own and we will take their help if needed.” The practice thereafter has been to shun foreign aid during natural calamities because the government has been confident of “coping with the situation” using internal sources.

However, it is important to note that the 2004 statement by Dr. Singh was a political articulation, not a legal directive or policy document. In any case, his statement did not close the door to external aid (“we will take their help if needed”). Does Kerala need help? Yes, it desperately does. Former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, in a recent tweet, explained the 2004 decision in the following words: “If memory serves, the 2004 decision was to not accept foreign participation in relief but accept it for long term rehabilitation case by case.”

In any case, since 2004, various policy documents have explicitly and implicitly suggested that the government may accept foreign aid during emergencies. The 2016 National Disaster Management Plan states: “…if the national government of another country voluntarily offers assistance as a goodwill gesture in solidarity with the disaster victims, the Central Government may accept the offer.” Similarly, the National Policy on Disaster Management of 2009 and the Disaster Management Act of 2005 are both positively inclined to coordinating with external agencies and institutions for disaster relief. The 2009 document even argues — thoughtfully so — that “disasters do not recognise geographical boundaries.”

In short, while the 2004 policy says that foreign aid can be accepted if need be, the 2016 policy document states that the government “may” accept foreign aid. The question is whether the situation in Kerala can persuade the Centre to operationalise the word “may” in a generous manner.

National pride

The second argument against accepting foreign aid seems to flow from a sense of national pride: that India is a not a poor country any longer and hence it doesn’t need anyone’s charity. There was a time we were forced to go abroad with a begging bowl, but those days are over and we can look after ourselves, goes the argument. Despite its powerful emotional appeal, this argument is misplaced at several levels. For one, it is misleading to say that only poor states accept foreign aid in times of natural disasters. For instance, India’s offer of aid was accepted by the U.S. in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and by China after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The reality is that countries reeling under natural calamities routinely accept emergency aid from other countries irrespective of how rich or poor they are.


The third argument is that India is self-sufficient and hence does not need relief material to deal with natural disasters. Here, it is important to make a distinction between foreign aid during normal periods and emergency humanitarian and reconstruction assistance. Besides, in the case of Kerala, by providing only a fraction of the emergency and reconstruction assistance requested by the State government despite repeated appeals, the Central government seems to have implicitly indicated that there aren’t sufficient funds available. Although New Delhi has taken the line that “in line with the existing policy, the government is committed to meeting the requirements for relief and rehabilitation through domestic efforts,” its actions so far fly in the face of this tall claim. So, if New Delhi is unable to heed Thiruvananthapuram’s urgent requests, shouldn’t it let Kerala take help from outside?

Aid with strings

Then there is the argument that foreign aid comes with strings attached. Yes, it has in the past, especially developmental assistance from Western nations or the World Bank. Aid and loans often came with demands of economic restructuring or resetting governance priorities, and an occasional sermon on human rights. But there is again a fundamental difference between such funding and humanitarian assistance. Hence the argument that UAE’s disaster relief to Kerala would come with strings attached is ludicrous. Abu Dhabi’s rationale for offering aid to Kerala is straightforward: the Malayali population in UAE has been crucial in its development, and the aid offer is a recognition of that bond.

A related issue is the paranoia displayed by successive governments in New Delhi about the ‘foreign hand/s’ constantly trying to undermine the Indian state. This has increased over the years, particularly under the current regime: consider the manner in which it cancelled the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) licenses of thousands of NGOs, including Greenpeace and Amnesty, depriving them of foreign funding.

Ironically, even as New Delhi vows to continue the policy of not allowing foreign humanitarian aid, and of restricting the activities of foreign-funded NGOs, it recently amended the FCRA to allow foreign funding of Indian political parties.

Money won’t bring relief

The fifth argument is that airdropping monetary aid doesn’t help in the absence of pre-existing administrative capacity for proper distribution, reconstruction and governance. In fact, some would argue that monetary aid without a focus on governance capacity building is useless or could even make the situation worse. While there is some merit in such an argument, this holds little relevance to the case of Kerala which happens to be one of India’s best governed States. What Kerala requires at the moment is monetary assistance, not lessons in governance.

New Delhi’s unilateral decision to not let humanitarian assistance reach a needy State also does not befit the federal character of the country as the spirit of federalism demands that such crucial decisions be taken after consultations with the stakeholders. The Union government should consult the affected federating units, which have large populations to care for, before crucial decisions of this nature are taken.

The argument here is not that India should seek/ receive regular foreign aid, but that it should accept foreign aid in times of humanitarian emergency, as do several countries, including the U.S., China and Japan. Moreover, there is an urgent need to evolve sensible, practical and empathetic guidelines on receiving emergency aid for the federal units in times of dire need.

The shale gas challenge

We need a sector-specific environment impact assessment manual on exploration and production

On August 1, 2018, the Central government approved a far-reaching policy that allows private and government players to explore and exploit unconventional hydrocarbons (including shale gas) in contract areas that were primarily allocated for extracting conventional hydrocarbons. Unlike conventional hydrocarbons that can be sponged out of permeable rocks easily, shale gas is trapped under low permeable rocks. Therefore, a mixture of ‘pressurised water, chemicals, and sand’ (shale fluid) is required to break low permeable rocks in order to unlock the shale gas reserves. The process requires around 5 to 9 million litres of water per extraction activity, posing a daunting challenge to India’s fresh water resources.

Acknowledging this challenge, the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons (DGH) issued a guideline on environment management during shale gas extraction, stating that “overall volume of fracture fluid is 5 to 10 times that of conventional hydraulic fracturing” and “the (fracturing) activities are likely to deplete water sources and cause pollution due to the disposal of flowback (produced) water.” However, the guideline falters and states that these challenges will be dealt while granting environmental clearances as per the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process. The EIA process, however, does not differentiate between conventional and unconventional hydrocarbons, and the DGH acknowledges this issue: “No differentiation has been made in the EIA notification between conventional and unconventional oil and gas exploration in this sector.”

Water-specific issues

Sensing this regulatory gap, the DGH in its guideline proposes five new reference points (term of references) relating to water issues in the fracking process that a project proponent must explain while applying for the environmental clearance. However, these five reference points are not succinct to resolve the water-specific issues posed by the fracking activities. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), which generally releases sector-specific manual for environment clearance, is yet to come out with a manual specific to fracking activities.

Despite acknowledging the enormity of water requirement for fracking activities, the DGH guideline fails to give a general estimate of water requirement per unit of shale gas over the lifetime of a shale well. A recent study from Duke University observes that from 2011 through 2016, the water use per well in the U.S. increased up to 770% resulting in some shale wells consuming up to 42 million litres of water per well. The study further conveys that over a period of time, the usage of water dramatically increases for extracting the same amount of shale gas from a well. The importance of clarity in water usage and the place of shale gas extraction in India is linked directly with water requirements of priority sectors like agriculture.

Shale rocks are usually adjacent to rocks containing useable/ drinking water known as ‘aquifers’. As noted by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2017, while fracking, the shale fluid could possibly penetrate aquifers leading to methane poisoning of groundwater used for drinking and irrigational purposes. Several researches conclude that such contamination can be controlled, if not avoided, provided a project proponent maintains a distance of 600 m between the aquifers and shale gas fracture zones. Acknowledging this complexity and the myriad structures of aquifers in India, the DGH guideline states that a project proponent must “design and construct wells with proper barriers to isolate and protect groundwater”, but misses out on broadly describing the nature or properties of a barrier that can be considered ‘proper’ to isolate and protect the groundwater.

Water cycle in a typical fracking process is different than other conventional hydrocarbon production activities. When shale fluid is injected underground at high pressure to fracture the rock, 5-50% (depending on the local geology) of the fluid returns to the surface, known as ‘flowback water’. Return flows continue as oil and gas is pumped from the well. The flowback water is usually methane-contaminated, and therefore it poses different recycling and leakage issues than usual wastewater. The Duke University study says, in the U.S., the flowback and produced water volumes generated within the first year of shale production increased up to 1,440% from 2011 through 2016. The DGH guideline again touches upon the exclusive nature of the flowback water but neither proposes any substantive treatment method nor recognises the increase in flowback water during repeated extraction of shale gas from a well over a period of time.

Implementation gaps

Indian households and irrigation thrive on groundwater. Implementation of the fracking processes without a consultative thought through process, especially on ‘water usage policy’, may result in larger issues including water stress, contamination of groundwater, and related health hazards. But as the process stands today, we are missing an opportunity to comprehensively regulate the fracking process for a sustainable shale gas exploration in India. As a first step, a sector-specific EIA manual on exploration and production of unconventional hydrocarbon resources may be a good idea.

Has India finally arrived on the sporting stage?

More and more parents are encouraging their children to seek a career in sports

India is attempting to make a mark in international sport and I love the public response to this. The athletes have fans who are backing them and praying for them. I am not really worried about the medals tally. Do you judge a sportsperson only by the number of victories? What if he or she loses a close contest? Is that not worthy of a salute?

Support and fan following

The atmosphere that has been generated in our country for the support of sportspersons is what makes me optimistic. More and more parents are encouraging their children to play and seek a career in sports. They have faith that sports can provide the platform for a healthy and decent future. I have seen this change in the last decade and I am convinced that India has arrived as a sporting nation. We must be patient. The day is not far when we will be a force to reckon with on the world stage.

It is good that we have an Olympic medallist as Union Sports Minister. This is a welcome change because the athletes are beginning to believe in the system. They are earning respect.

I don’t know about records at the ongoing Asian Games in Jakarta. We may break them, we may not. But we have competed well so far. Is that not an encouraging sign, an indication that we are moving in the right direction? I know the kabaddi defeats are going to hurt big. But have we not won medals in a variety of sports, from wushu and rowing to equestrian? Times are changing, India has taken to lesser-known sports in a big way. I am sure medals in these sports will show the way forward.

When the first Asian Games ended in 1951, India had clinched 15 gold medals. We have not achieved that mark again. That does not mean that the nation has lagged. You don’t become a sporting nation overnight. There are more people watching and more and more children playing. I can’t read the future but I can say with confidence that the stage is set for India to excel. We have set the ball rolling and the intentions are good. The recent victories of the Indian junior football teams have been very heartening.

The facilities provided by the government are second to none if you see the size of the country. Without government support, sport will die. A game like hockey will collapse if there is no government backing. It will also sink if there are no good competitions such as the Hockey India League which provides financial security to the players. The government is the provider, the driving force behind sports being given priority in schools and colleges.

Constant improvement

India has begun to offer competition in games which are not big at home. This is because we have talent. In traditional games like hockey, tennis, badminton and athletics, there is impressive progress. Swimmers have begun to make a mark and promise to rake in medals. To make a big splash at the 2022 Asian Games, we must begin preparations now.

Don’t measure success from the number of medals won. You must give importance to the fact that our boys and girls are constantly improving their personal bests and are very motivated.

Potential to shine

I know my generation played for the country even though there was no money. Today, sportspersons play for the country and also for the money. Given the growing number of youngsters taking to sports, I can say that India has shown the potential to shine on the world stage.

As told to Vijay Lokapally

The administrators are apathetic, the facilities are outdated, and the resources meagre

Every time India does well at a multi-sport event, there is a chorus that we have arrived on the world stage. The Asian Games have been no exception. With just two medals at the Rio Olympics in 2016, a silver and a bronze, behind solitary-gold achievers like Azerbaijan, Slovenia, Ivory Coast and Fiji, it is illogical to presume that we have arrived on the big stage of world sports.

Do medals in Olympics matter? They do. Every leading country in sports plans for an increased number of medals. Britain, for instance, won just one gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but 27 at the 2016 Rio Olympics, just behind the U.S.

Medals matter

India’s progress in joining the elite sports powers in the world has been excruciatingly slow. For a country which is often described by its population figures in the sporting context — and rather misleadingly by commentators — the primary target when the Asian Games began was to better the last medal count. India has a total of 26 medals in Olympics (excluding Norman Pritchard’s two silver medals in 1900), including nine gold medals, eight of which are from hockey. The only athlete to win a gold medal in an individual category is Abhinav Bindra (in shooting in 2008 in Beijing).

Compare this to Italy’s tally of 28 medals, including eight gold, at the Rio Olympics and you get an idea about India’s global standing. Surely there is a talented young brigade ready to make a splash on the world stage, but unless India makes a mark at the Olympics, the aim of joining the big league will remain unfulfilled.

After a six-medal haul in the 2012 London Olympics, the hope was that India would double that tally in 2016. That did not materialise, and the country had to be satisfied with one silver from P.V. Sindhu in badminton and an unexpected bronze from Sakshi Malik in wrestling. Contrast this with Britain’s performance. At home in 2012, Britain won 65 medals in all, but in Rio it won 67, including 27 gold to China’s 26.

Britain spent £5.5 million per medal on an average for its 67 medals, according to reports. Today, UK Sport, through Britain’s national lottery funding, has allocated massive funds for preparing its teams for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It targets sports while calculating its potential to win medals. To get an idea, the amount being spent on rowing is £30,524,595! On cycling it is £29,624,264, on athletics it is £26,919,031, and on sailing it is £25,757,417.

Budget support

In India, the Union Budget for 2018-19 provided ₹2196.35 crore for sports, out of which ₹520.09 crore went to Khelo India, the government’s flagship programme to unearth talent. The Sports Authority of India’s budget was cut by ₹66 crore, thereby curtailing its freedom to be liberal with proposals from national sports federations.

There is a need to concentrate on creating new infrastructure facilities and providing adequate foreign exposure to our front-line sportspersons. Funds for equipment, the shortage of which was highlighted by an archer during the Asian Games, could be made easier to obtain, with or without the Target Olympic Podium Scheme.

Coming behind countries like Indonesia and Iran in the Asian Games does little credit to India. Once India gets the rank befitting its stature in the continent in the Asian Games, it can aim higher at the world level. Till then, the grind must continue amidst the general apathy among administrators, a corrupt system, outdated facilities and meagre resources.

The medals tally is not the only way to ascertain whether or not India is a sporting nation

Every time a big sporting event is held, there is a buzz about sports; specifically, there is a buzz about the state of Indian sports. Over the last decade India has won more medals than the previous four decades put together. While that is a great number to talk about and brings all the optimists on the same stage with a tall claim that Indian sports has finally arrived on the world stage, I beg to disagree. I don’t think it is an accurate statement. I understand the need for encouragement but sport is not make-believe.

My answer to the question is that the process to reach there is complicated. Having a ringside view has meant that my opinion has swung from sheer optimism to plain despair. At this point, I would say I am at a crossroads.

A cultural change

Over the last 10 years we have had a lot of athletes who have not only been at the top of the world but who have also inspired a generation of athletes to look at dominating in varied sports. More importantly, there has been a major cultural change in our basic belief system. Athletes no longer feel as though they are inferior to their international counterparts, and that is probably the most heartening aspect of Indian sport.

Weak bench strength

However, to then claim that it amounts to being at par with the rest of the countries is not an accurate analysis. First, are international medals the main parameter of whether or not a country is an established sporting nation? It really ought not to be. A sporting nation is one that has sustainable systems, societal interest in sport, which links sport and entertainment, which has large numbers across disciplines, both amateur and professional.

There are several Indian athletes now who are in the forefront of various disciplines, but a critical factor on the assessment of the health of a sport is to measure how many players are waiting in the pipeline to knock him/her off that perch. The bench strength is weak. While our athletes now believe that they do get the opportunities to compete alongside the best in the world, our management systems of sport are archaic, to say the least.

The certifying authority in India for nurturing coaches and trainers, the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, has an outdated curriculum. It is probably 30 years behind the times. Our national federations still struggle to take their various disciplines to the masses. They have monumentally failed in creating an overall interest in the sport because they do not plan, let alone think, long term outside the proverbial box for the growth of the sport.

No sports curriculum

Only a small percentage of the Indian public has any interest in sport in general. Barring cricket, a majority has no knowledge of Olympic sports. Schools have still not made sports a priority in their curriculum. We may have some athletes who are among the highest earners in the world, we may have Olympics medallists. But it takes a lot more to say that India is now a sporting nation. In sports parlance, these are the “outliers” who are still considered to be products despite the system. Until these people become creations of a system we need to put our heads down and keep working towards spreading the word. We must look to make sport an integral part of every household.

Before we claim that India is a sporting power, please remember that we have just one individual Olympics gold winner: Abhinav Bindra.

That tells the story.