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December 6, 1999


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Embassy Says India Won't Beg

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Prakash M Swamy in New York and R S Shankar in San Francisco

"The Indian government and its people have self-respect and we don't go with a begging bowl in a foreign land which would evoke a different kind of negative feeling," said Indian Consul-General Shashi Uban Tripathi, reacting to criticism that Indian officials have been slow in directing Orissa relief efforts, and that they should have approached Washington for more aid than the $ 7.5 million sanctioned by the White House.

"Why would the country want to beg when the Indians living abroad are so generous in their donations to wipe the tears of their brethren?" she asked.

"Moreover, the government has specifically instructed its foreign service officers posted abroad not to indulge in any fund-raising activity since they could sometimes be misused. But we have been asked to co-ordinate and assist the donors to the fullest extent possible," she said.

Her comments came as the Indian consulate in New York and Air-India began a massive joint effort in the first week of December to airlift over 250 cartons of relief materials including blankets, canned foods, used clothes and medicines for the victims of the October 29 cyclone in Orissa.

Embassy and consular officials have stoutly denied that they had distanced themselves or washed the hands off the relief work. Newspaper reports suggesting any such thing was "ridiculous" one official said.

"We have not gone out and appealed to American people or the government to give aid to India," said T P Sreenivasan, deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Washington. "Some leaders in the community wanted us to do it, but we cannot do it."

Several Indian organizations, including the National Council of Asian Indian Associations, based in Lanham, Maryland, have claimed the credit for Washington allotting about $ 7.5 million to provide relief in Orissa.

"If our officials had let it be known that we welcome the money, perhaps Washington would have given much more money," said Shreekant Nayak, an engineer who heads NCAIA.

"Nobody wants our government to go around begging but there are ways of letting Washington know we need much more money to fight this unprecedented tragedy."

About 50 Indian American organizations, including the Swaminarayanis and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, are actively organizing relief. Indian community groups in San Francisco and Silicon Valley that raised nearly $ 1 million for Kargil have not been very visible in the Orissa campaign.

"Many of us have been sending money and relief material," said one donor who sought anonymity. "But there is a general feeling here that this being a natural disaster hundreds of international agencies will be helping the government. In case of Kargil, we could not expect such help."

An estimated $ 1 million has been raised by Indian American organizations for the Orissa relief fund. "Frankly, we should have raised 10 times that money," says Nayak. "The Indian American community is nearly 1.2 million strong. We should have raised $ 10 million within a few days of the cyclone."

Air-India is airlifting the supplies provided by Indian Americans organizations and individuals free of charge every day; the New York consulate is completing the necessary customs and documentation formalities.

The supplies are sent to the special relief commissioner of the Orissa government in New Delhi. Consulate officials say they have been flooded with cartons full of relief materials pouring in from all directions through UPS and postal service.

It has made arrangements to move the cartons received from the donors daily by vans to Air-India's cargo division at the JFK international airport, well in time to be loaded onto the daily flight to Bombay.

"The response has been encouraging," said Tripathi, who supervised the airlifting of consignments from the consulate. More than 100 cartons are waiting to be airlifted.

"We have also received $ 8,770 by way of cheques and drafts till date and the money collected will be sent to the Prime Minister's Relief Fund," she said.

The Reverend Ed Bishop of the Latter Day Saints Charities at Salt Lake City, Utah has also sent 7,500 blankets to the New York consulate to be handed over to the cyclone victims.

The Prime Minister's Office also issued a circular to all embassies and missions to assist donors collect supplies and airlift them free of cost with the help of Air-India and Indian Airlines. The arrangement with Air-India to airlift cargo free of cost has been extended to December 31.

This arrangement had come as a boon to donors as it helped them overcome the freight and customs formalities, with the consulate itself taking over the entire burden of paper work. The head of chancery, Azad Toor, acts as a nodal point in arranging for the shipment of relief materials.

The consulate has only one request to make: Stuff all the contents in fully secured 2x2x2 boxes and send them to the office with a list of contents and the approximate value of the goods. They can also send the boxes directly to Air-India's cargo division at the JFK airport after getting the documentation done at the consulate.

If donors provide details of the contents and value over the phone, the office of the head of chancery will fax the necessary documents to enable Air-India to accept the parcels. The consulate is also accepting the parcels round-the-clock, including during weekends.

Asked about the public response to the Kargil fund and Orissa relief fund, Tripathi said there could be no comparison.

"Kargil evoked a lot of patriotic fervor while the calamity in Orissa shook people beyond words. There is a lot of sympathy for the affected people. Also, it's not in good taste to politicize a natural calamity," she said.

But Nayak feels many Indian Americans have not reacted with as much alacrity as in the case of Kargil. "Kargil was an external emergency," he says.

"This is something happening within the country and this is a huge national calamity too."

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