India Pulls Together amid Disaster

In its newly wealthy people's will to help tsunami-devastated areas, an increasingly confident and self-sufficient country is being born

By Manjeet Kripalani

The news of the tsunami's destruction gets worse every day. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has finally been to the region and said he had "never seen such utter destruction, mile after mile." In India, the hardest hit were those in the state of Tamil Nadu.

I learned a lot from my four-day trip to the state's tsunami-hit area. I've learned that people are wonderful in times of crisis: So many ordinary folks, both Indian and foreign, have traveled to places like Nagapattinam to help. I've learned that people are terrible in times of crisis: Newspaper reports say caste differences in Tamil Nadu made sure that the very lowest on the social ladder -- and hence the very poorest and most vulnerable -- were made to stand at the end of relief lines and couldn't share shelters with those who considered themselves of a higher caste. The poor were discriminating against the very poor.


  I've also learned that disaster areas are dumping grounds for expired or unusable goods from developed countries. That has roused considerable anger in India, which is committed to taking care of its own. "What do people think we are -- beggars? And that beggars can't be choosers?" an enraged Tamil Nadu government official said to me.

Such unusable relief supplies double the work of an already overstretched system -- everything has to be inspected, then thrown away, creating unnecessary garbage. Worse, even if the aid is unusable, the receiving country feels obliged to the donor nation. That's an unnecessary psychological and political burden for a poor country to carry.

Yet I've learned that many Indians aren't feeling poor anymore. In 2001, when a terrible earthquake hit Gujarat, India depended on international assistance. The local government's efforts were inadequate, the administration didn't have the skills, and India wasn't in good economic shape.

But in the three years since, the nation has become a different place economically. Its tech and manufacturing sectors are gaining in global importance. People are wealthier, and more citizens are moving into the middle classes, according to the National Centre for Applied Economic Research. They're also feeling more generous to their less fortunate countrymen. India has more money to spend on its poor, on its infrastructure, on bettering its education systems, on the aftermath of its disasters.


  Emotionally, India is gaining confidence. Its new wealth and status have given it renewed pride and ambition. In fact, the tsunami has handed India the opportunity to establish itself as a regional power. It's now a donor country -- and one of the largest tsunami relief donors to Sri Lanka. The Indian army and navy are engaged in relief operations in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Indonesia. India is joining Australia, Japan, and the U.S. in setting up and monitoring a tsunami early-warning system in the Indian Ocean.

Some 10 days ago, after the first wave of relief supplies arrived in Tamil Nadu from all over the world, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sparked national pride when he refused aid offered by the U.S. and other countries. Thanks but no thanks, he said politely, we can help ourselves. That refusal boosted the relief effort from within India -- a psychological shift marked by Indians deciding to take charge of their own destiny.

This change is so clear in the shattered port of Nagapattinam in southern Tamil Nadu, one of the places I visited last week (see BW Online, 1/6/04, "In the Wake of the Tsunami" and BW Online, 1/7/04, The Pen, Too, Is a Tool for Rebuilding). Every corner of the country is sending assistance. The engineers and equipment of Indian oil giant Oil & Natural Gas is helping to dredge up buried ships. Hyderabad's Nandi Foundation, which provides the compulsory single meal in that city's schools every day, is helping to set up a community kitchen. Men from the Tata conglomerate, wearing hats sporting the company logo, are busy directing some rubble clearing.


  Locals are working with their bare hands and feet reerecting power poles, and the army is out in large numbers, helping everybody. Nagapattinam -- which is worse than a war zone -- is packed with volunteers as well as trucks, cranes, bulldozers, cars, and vans. Singh's declining of international aid "makes me feel one inch taller," the famous south Indian dancer Padma Subramaniam told me when she was visiting Nagapattinam last week. "That, and the hard working, self-supporting proud fisherfolk."

I believe this is a seminal moment for India, a turning point in the country's history. Its power -- geopolitical, economic, and social -- has clearly emerged. I'm reminded of Aug. 25, 2003, when two bomb blasts ripped a hole in the heart of the business district of Bombay, India's commercial capital, killing 52 and injuring four times as many. It was a terrorist attack that authorities blamed on Pakistani groups, and fears were great that the city would break out into religious violence, bringing an end to the recent, fragile rise in business confidence. After all, it had happened before.

But this time, both the Hindu and Muslim extremists kept their emotions in check. Everyone had caught a whiff of economic prosperity's fragrance. No one wanted to spoil that mood, so hard to come by after so many false starts. So, offices stayed open, the stock market rewarded investors for not bolting, and ordinary Indians of all faiths lined up outside hospitals to donate blood to the injured. And since then, India hasn't looked back.


  The tsunami tragedy has done more. A society riven by huge divides between the rich and the poor, the well-born and the lower castes, is being united. It has brought together Indians of all backgrounds to help each other, the rich and the middle class standing shoulder to shoulder with the poor, assisting those who have lost their homes, livelihoods, and families. India's rising middle classes know that if they don't include the poor in their agenda of economic growth, their own efforts will be negated.

So they're pulling them along in whichever way they can. The government officials and relief groups are doing their best, individuals are doing what they can, the press is providing strict scrutiny of the tragedy and the aid effort. That's why the poor fisherfolk in Tamil Nadu are, in most cases, not feeling ignored or abandoned.

The disaster has narrowed just a bit the gap between "us" and "them" in India. It will take decades before that gap closes and a truly egalitarian nation emerges. But at least the narrowing has begun. I hope it continues -- I think it will.

Kripalani is BusinessWeek's India bureau chief, based in Bombay

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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