The India-UK aid row is in the news once again: this time, India has refused the reduced aid Britain has offered it, and plans are said to be in place to put an end to all of it by 2015. However, I’m confused about the question that lies at the heart of the India-UK aid controversy. If Britain has a percentage of its GDP earmarked for developing economies, is the main problem the fact that India already has enough money and doesn’t need to be given any aid, or is it that aid to all countries needs to be reduced because Britain is a cash-strapped country?
Interestingly, in most articles that question the continuation of aid to India, the first point brought up is usually the fact that the country has a thriving space programme and develops nuclear missiles, and therefore is not eligible for foreign aid. That India itself gives a large amount of aid is not mentioned as much. True, India has an enormous budget for space programmes and also an extremely large number of people who live in poverty: but which of these knee-jerk responses has been able to prove that the pursuit of technology and education takes food out of the mouths of the poor? Behind this overwhelming concern for the poor of the Third World seems to lie a wish to see them continue to remain the White Man’s Burden, incapable of progress on any front.
The problems of infant mortality, malnourishment, poverty and lack of infrastructure in India stem not from the lack of resources, but improper distribution and corruption. This is something that we need to address on our own- we cannot expect other countries to fund our basic infrastructure, while our own public money is stashed away in private accounts in mysterious ways. As for defence spending, surely Britain is not unaware of the reason why India is embroiled in disputes with Pakistan and Bangladesh? With China next door aiming for supremacy at any cost, India cannot afford to twiddle its thumbs and wait for countries with whom it signs civil nuclear treaties to come to its rescue if and when necessary. In fact, it is rather rich of countries which continue protecting their nuclear stockpiles and have been waging futile wars for years to clamour for everyone else’s disarmament and world peace. With proper management, technological progress and social development can coexist. Poverty is not a reason why India should find itself dependent on the West for everything.
This is not to say that there aren’t valid objections to the grant of British aid to India. We don’t have a transparent system to ensure that the use of donations can be tracked properly. Bureaucratic hurdles and rampant corruption are ubiquitous nightmares to be dealt with: sometimes, the money may never reach the destination, rendering any aid futile. So what happens to postcolonial accountability?
India has not erased two hundred years of colonial rule out of its collective memory yet. That the ruling Congress coalition takes its orders from a woman of Italian origin is widely viewed as a sign of a colonial transition, with incidents like the Quattrocchi affair and even the relatively minor Ferrari incident at the Indian Grand Prix only serving to deepen the mistrust. Whether we need it or not, many of us think of British aid as a means of receiving all that was systematically plundered from the country by the East India Company and subsequently the Crown. The bloody Partition leading to one of the largest ever migrations of people in history itself is proof enough of the turmoil British colonialism caused, particularly as the subcontinent still struggles in its aftermath. German students are taught not to forget the Holocaust; that the rape of India (and other colonies) took place over a much longer period of time and did not have an equally graphic impact does not make it any less horrific.
However, to what point does accountability extend? Can we hold the present generation of British citizens ransom for the mistakes of their predecessors? The Mau Mau uprising trial will be held in Britain despite a large number of years having elapsed since it happened; will this set a precedent for former colonies to start unearthing incidents that are still fresh in survivors’ memories, so that they can demand reparation for the damage caused? It is hard to decide where to draw the line on accountability. The current generation, itself reeling under economic recession and struggling to find work, is surely not responsible for the past and should not be made to suffer for it. So what exactly should be done to make amends for history?
Colonialism in the physical sense might have come to an end, but the West continues to enjoy a monopoly in various areas. From global bodies working on security issues to the ones laying down environment laws and immigration rules, control remains securely in the hands of the West. The BRIC economies have not yet produced anything overly remarkable; India, in particular, continues its war with corruption, black money and dynastic politics. What we need is not aid but to set our house in order first. India can afford to refuse aid; all the riches we once poured into the Crown have disappeared into thin air, but do we really need to bargain with Britain for the relatively small amounts of money they now offer to bestow on us? There are countries that really need aid and should be provided with it: we ought to focus instead on using our money properly. For we really cannot talk of preserving our dignity as long as we are so blatantly corrupt.