NEW DELHI: India is a country notorious for middlemen who specialize 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 Asian 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 (people outside the Hindu caste hierarchy)," 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 when killer waves spawned by a 9.0 undersea quake in Indonesia's Sumatra Island devastated the coasts of 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 United Nations to direct its efforts to other affected Asian countries.
India was the first off the block with international aid and sent its warships laden with emergency relief to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia's Aceh province. And New Delhi even went to the extent of asking U.N. 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 (AsDB) and the World Bank for assistance in reconstruction and rehabilitation work and in building early warning systems against future tsunamis and natural disasters.
Michael Carter, the World Bank's country director said at a press conference on Tuesday that he found it "truly impressive the way India responded in providing basic necessities to the affected people."
Internally, graphic images of the tragedy aired by local television channels brought on an unprecedented outpouring of generosity from Indians - from rickshaw pullers to movie stars - and the Prime Minister's Relief Fund alone has collected more than a billion U.S. dollars with money still coming in.
Still, collecting funds is one thing and translating it into tangible benefits for the tsunami survivors that need it badly 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.
During debates on the scheme, Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, one of India's leading commentators on economic issues thought that the best way to get funds to the poor was to drop the money by helicopter over rural areas.
"The poor would scramble over ridges and valleys to gather every note but it will not be worth the while of the rich bureaucrats or contractors to do the same. Little will leak to the non-poor," Aiyar opined in seriousness and challenged the government to try it out as an alternative to poverty reduction through its guaranteed employment scheme.
Muqbil Ahmed, the president of the Jawaharalal Nehru Students Union (JNUSU), which has pitched into the Indian Social Institute tsunami relief effort, agrees that aid has to be more direct and circumvent contractors and middlemen.
Corruption is certainly a major concern and we have tasked a preliminary team that is out there in Tamil Nadu and expected to report back to us in a day or two on how best to get aid to right people," said Ahmed who leads a team of 15 students and teachers from the Jawaharalal Nehru University that is involved in getting relief to Tamil Nadu and the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
The concern over people profiting from misery in India is not misplaced. There was clear evidence of that happening when relief efforts were mounted for victims for a super cyclone that hit the coast of eastern Orissa state in Oct. 1999 and claimed more than 20,000 lives. Also the January 2001 earthquake that devastated large parts of western Gujarat saw such dishonesty in the name of mercy.
Last year, the global corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) ranked India among the world's 50 most corrupt countries in its Corruption Perception Index for 2004. According to TI, the Indian economy loses some seven billion dollars annually as bribes - some cases of which erupt as scandals bringing down politicians.
"The report makes it clear that corruption is one the biggest problems in our country - and what is significant is that poorer sections of society are the most affected by corruption," commented Admiral (Rtd.) R H Tahiliani, chairman of TI India.
But Ahmed 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 at all levels, proper vigilance and elimination of middlemen would go a long way in addressing the problem of the tsunami 'Black Sunday'.
Srivastava said it was encouraging to see that the U.N. was responding to the charges of high corruption and going about building a system whereby the public could track every dollar, over the internet, that was going into tsunami relief efforts.
UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric has been quoted as saying that the world body has accepted an offer from an international accounting firm to track free of cost aid being sent to tsunami victims and also investigate fraud, waste or abuse during the emergency relief drive. -Dawn/The Inter Press News Service