Letter from Kathmandu: China's beating India in the aid wars

Meanwhile it's said India and China are using the relief effort to compete for influence

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

After the first earthquake we were told that the chance of another one was 200 to 1. A fortnight later, when we were just beginning to recover, the second one hit. Perhaps I’m getting better at this, because this time I was able to control my body enough to run outside and join the crowd in the street. Standing with my family, looking back towards our home, I could see dust billowing from the foundations of the houses. They seemed to be dancing back and forth. The chances of a third strike, we’re told, are minuscule. Should we believe this? No one feels ready to relax.

Nearly all of us here in Kathmandu are now sleeping outside. There are tents and simple shelters everywhere. Tundikhel, a huge military parade ground in the centre of the city, has become home to thousands sleeping in shelters provided by foreign governments and the Nepali army. There aren’t many proper tents in my neighbourhood. People have done the best they can with plastic sheets, bamboo poles and bed linen. Families are sleeping wherever there’s open space: in parks, on the edge of the road, along river banks and between ruined houses.


The weird and sometimes distasteful politics of foreign aid are now being played out in front of us. It’s said that India and China are using the disaster relief effort to compete for influence in Nepal. If true, I’d say the Chinese are definitely winning; the tents with Chinese stickers on are the ones everyone wants to be in. The food sent by the Indians is out of date: people are complaining about mouldy bread and fermented orange juice. Singapore, the richest country in the east, has sent packs of out-of-date instant noodles. Word is that the Nepali government is going to destroy the next shipload before it reaches the relief camps. The authorities seem to think that health and safety lawsuits are a bigger problem than starvation.

Appetite for India’s not-always-fresh food aid is a good indication of how desperate things are. Walking past a relief camp in the early evening, I saw people queuing for a single scoop of rice. The rice was half-cooked, one woman said. A man said he’d found an insect in his helping the previous evening. Even so, the queue was long. At another camp in a residential area, I saw several people come out of perfectly intact houses and go to collect supplies. I asked a woman taking bags of food whether her house was damaged. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘But the food is free.’


The official aid tents are also sometimes occupied by opportunists. I know of one family that has decamped from a perfectly intact house to a tent, to take advantage of the free food and water brought by aid workers. This is not entirely unforgivable. The earthquake has sent prices soaring. Families are worried about food shortages and some shops are asking 150 rupees for bottles of water that cost 20 rupees a few weeks ago. Inflation can be just as worrying as starvation.

There are a lot of theories in Kathmandu about what caused the earthquakes, not all of them geological. Some say that God carries the earth on his shoulders, one at a time, and when he gets tired, he rolls the whole planet from one shoulder to another, causing quakes. Others believe there are too many people on earth (by which they normally mean Kathmandu) so the population needs to be trimmed. God sent the earthquakes, according to these Nepali Malthusians, as a bit of population management.


We have also seen a new kind of visitor: the disaster selfie-taker. Off they head to flattened villages, carrying a couple of bags of rice and their iPhone. Then they will post a photo on Facebook of themselves grinning with a family who are living in a tent, before getting their coach back to Kathmandu.Then there are the astrologists who say that this Nepali year, 2072, is a dangerous one: Saturn and Mars have crossed paths, causing a crisis on Earth. The days on which the earthquakes struck seem to offer confirmation. The days of the week in Nepali are named after planets. Saturday and Tuesday, the days of the first and second earthquakes, get their names from Saturn and Mars respectively. Some of my neighbours complain that Sushil Koirala, our 75-year-old Prime Minister, should be offering sacrifices to the heavens to placate them.

My family were lucky: our house wasn’t marked with a red sticker when engineers came to look at it after the first earthquake, which means they think it’s safe. Whenever I’ve stepped inside any other building in the last few days, I’ve found myself looking to see whether it has one of those red marks. If it does, I don’t go too far inside. It will be a while before Kathmandu gets back to normal, but the weather is as variable as ever. When it rains, I think about our monsoons — and a country with no roofs.

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  • UnionJihack

    China have way outpaced India in relief and other investment efforts – the raw data published when Modi went to Beijing last week proves it.

    • Bonkim

      The Chinese are better motivated and organized.

      • Hegelman

        So what?
        I fail to see what your hatred of India is about. India has just as much right to exist as any other country, even if you don’t like it.
        Some countries are more efficient than others. Some men are more efficient than others.
        We have to live with it. It is a condition of human life.
        India is progressing at its own pace; slowly. It is a democracy and cannot just order people around like the regime in China can, or as your own West could when it was poor. In India the poor have votes and can take the government to court So all progress is slow.
        We cannot enslave blacks and kill off Amerindians at pleasure as the Anglo Saxons could North America. We cannot kick peasants around as the regime in Beijing can.

        • Bonkim

          You have no clue of the real situation of minorities and the significant proportion of disadvantaged and exploited Indians in India. Democracy and vote is a myth. People get killed and raped in vast numbers across the country and those with power and money are not accountable. The legal system is a joke.

          • Hegelman

            If Indian democracy is not good enough for you or something that can be built on, so be it. We will carry on as best we can and leave you to worship the thuggeries of China.

            What was your OWN country like when it was developing…Children were shoved up the chimneys and there were damn all rights for the poor. One poster here has pointed out the situation in Scotland:

            ”The estates themselves are nothing more than the hangover of ethnic cleansing from the clearances. You can hike through miles of hills and valleys in the highlands without meeting another soul, yet pass countless ruins where the natives used to live and work before being driven off to make way for sheep and sport shooting. It is not a natural wilderness but a man made wasteland.”

          • Bonkim

            Absolutely history shaped by people and that found solutions to the inequalities and exploitation you refer to – and the British Indian Government tried to bring enlightenment to India as society was changing in Britain – much of the early Independent movement in India was based on similar movements taking shape in Britain – societies across the globe were throwing away the shackles of religion and privilege – the pity is after a century or more of such enlightenment India still is seeped in its backward social organisation. China has unshackled itself via the communist doctrine. the English speaking world by and large have recognized the errors of the past and set it place systems of law and governance that have removed their historic devils.

            Indian society appears to have got worse despite the increase in affluence simply because it has lost the basic ethos of civilization – social organisation, equality, and respect for all people and women that interestingly existed in Ancient India – now lost.

            But of course if you can bribe your Gods by a few Rupees why should mere mortals escape the lure of easy profit?

            Living in Scotland you have no clue of the real india – come here and see for yourself.

          • Hegelman

            I don’t share your mad adulation of ancient India nor your reckless denigration of modern India.
            India is too complex for simple minds like you.

          • Bonkim

            No one is asking you to – the facts are quite clear – with a population of 1.2+billion and many world class industries and educational institutions Indians continue to hanker after foreign education snd emigrating to Britain/US – the real facts are – Indians don’t have faith on the fairness or ability of their own systems to maximise potential. Simply defending India from outside serves no purpose.

            Comparing with China – India is a great market for Chinese made goods – now that must tell you something.

          • flipkipper

            B r i t a i n is a great market for Chinese goods. What does that tell you but not me? Jesus, you are dumb.

          • Bonkim

            Chinese make most of the things the world uses including heavy machinery.

          • Hegelman

            Minorities in India are far freer than Hindu minorities in Muslim lands.

          • Bonkim

            Didn’t realise treatment of minorities in Muslim lands is the international standards by which such things are to be measured – to repeat – can’t Indians be original in any thing – but rely on others. Servile mindset. Needless to say India was not won by Indians nor its systems of governance and social organisation evolved from within – as are its borders and the artificially constructed Constitution, and legal system. India has been shaped by others for centuries and Indians lack originality or ability to think for themselves – a servile mindset so apparent in all spheres in India – just look at the media – not much there of the real India – cricket, Bollywood scandals, and politicians’ meaningless mutterings that have no relationship with the people of India – Is there a real India or real Indians – a polyglot, multi-etnic and multi-cultural people living in voluntary apartheid and creating strife when they come in contact with each other. People from the Eastern states discriminated in the Western/central and southern regions, say no more.

            Get real – India is just an artificial construct in name.

          • Hegelman

            And yet people are free to speak against the regime IN India; people hold demonstrations freely. Books are published (mostly) quite freely.

            No doubt things are better in these respects in China and in Muslim countries.

            Elections are held. Governments change. India has been infinitely freer in its poverty stage than Britain was at an equivalent level of mass misery.

            British rule brought repeated famines in India: 25 million dead in the nineteenth century alone, one tenth of all Bengalis dead in the Churchill Famine of 1943.

            Who are the British to whine about India.

          • Bonkim

            Famines were regular across the globe until food processing, transport and storage technologies were developed in the 20th century. Famines in Europe/Ireland triggered mass emigration to the new world. Even the Bengal famine in 1942 – was the result of market failure – and the war situation with the defence of India’s eastern frontier taking priority. Indian Baniyas also did not help as they were past masters of engineering shortages and profiteering – still continuing – look at how the onion market is rigged from time to time. Once again you suffer from a chip on the shoulder – India has many great things going for it – social organisation and its backward class and caste system based expoitation, arranged/forced marriages, and corruption – nothing to be proud of.

            India had its own government with many Indians in prominent positions – most of the Indian civil service and judiciary were manned by Indians by the 1940s and Indian by and large managed most of India by the 1930s and 40s – so don’t blame Churchill or the British. Food production, distribution and trading were controlled by Indian businessmen all through the days of the British Raj. The British system was not restrictive and there was a system of food rationing all through the war years – people died because they did not have any money, or poorly paid or dependent on the Indian class and caste system for their livelihood – in fact the dead were mostly from the poorer and discriminated classes as happens because of poor social organisation. the better off classes were actively engaged in black-marketing.

          • JSC

            Ah yes…

            It wasn’t torrential rains, floods, tidal waves and cyclones that washed away India’s crops that caused the famine…

            It wan’t crop failure due to disease from lack of proper pesticides, it wasn’t the lack of crop diversity, lack of industrialisation and proper crop management by India that caused the famine…

            It wasn’t the Japanese invading Burma and disrupting food importation…

            It especially wasn’t the Indian governments own admittedly falsified reports on its food supply / reserves (reports subsequently called “not merely guesses, ‘but frequently demonstrably absurd guesses'”, “entirely untrustworthy” and “useless for any purpose”) that lead to the famine…

            Oh no! It was CHURCHILL! And the damn BRITISH that caused the famine!

            I suspect that India’s ruling classes will only be able to keep blaming the British for so long in detract from their own failings before the general populace cotton on the the fact that India was hardly a paradise before the British arrived and certainly isn’t becoming one now that we’ve left.

          • Hegelman

            There was a famine in the Indian province of Bengal in 1943 that killed one tenth of its population – about 3 mllion people. Despite desperate pleas for famine relief from the British Viceroy in India, Lord Wavell, Churchill refused aid until millions were dead.

            This was after he had been draining food from India for years, and when millions of Indians were fighting on the side of Britain.

            What is more, Churchill forbade the US and Australia to send famine relief to Bengal either, as they
            offered to do. So Australian ships filled with grain by-passed a starving Bengal whose fields and roads were lined with the dead and dying. In the Whites Only clubs of Calcutta the British ate and drank without stint, as did Churchill at home.

            (One of his ministers, Lord Reith, seeing the food bill for a Churchill-Roosevelt summit, commented, “I wonder how much Roosevelt got.”)

            Wavell wondered in his published diaries if the Churchill Cabinet was not the most contemptible Britain had ever had. (See “The Viceroy’s Memoirs”, London, 1970).

            Other colleagues of Churchill were disgusted by his Bengal famine policy, too. Lord Alanbrooke, his Chief Military Adviser, remarked, “Winston seems content to starve India while using it as a military base.” See Patrick French’s well known book on India’s transition to Independence, “Liberty or Death”.

            Desperate famine victims thronged the streets of Calcutta while the British were feasting in their clubs and hotels; some tried to get into the hospitals but were
            thrown out by British staff who pointed out that they weren’t ill but merely starving.

            Churchill forbade India to use its own ships
            and money to bring in food; later British rulers stopped India from applying to the UN for famine aid; so Indian contributions to the UN went to feed Europeans while Indians starved.

            A highly praised history of this appalling episode in the life of Britain’s supposed greatest man is Madhusree Mukerjee’s “Churchill’s Secret War”. It has been lauded by Sir Max Hastings, the well-known Churchill authority and ex-Daily Telegraph editor.

            India under British rule was ravaged by massive famines decade after decade. About 25 millions died of famine in the nineteenth century alone. There is a famous book about that, “Late Victorian Holocausts”, by Professor Mikle Davis.

            In India the Union Jack was the famine flag. India has had very corrupt and irresponsible rulers since that flag was hauled down in Delhi, but no famine on anything like the ones under the British.

          • JSC

            “…draining food from India for years…”
            We call that “buying”.
            “…Churchill forbade the US and Australia to send famine relief to Bengal…”
            Actually the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ stopped them from doing so; but not before the UK lost 36,200 sailors, 36,000 merchant seamen, 3,500 merchant vessels,175 warships and 741 RAF Coastal Command Aircraft trying. In short Churchill was never rubbing his hands with glee at the thought of starving Bengali’s; the food that was originally intended for them was instead sent to Greece which itself was also in the midst of a famine but far more accessible. I assume you would prefer Greeks to starve over Bengali’s? That’s IMHO not a choice anyone would like to make.
            “India under British rule was ravaged by massive famines decade after decade.”
            Indeed, just as it was before British rule. The only reason you know more about the British era ones is because the British investigated and documented the causes of them – with an aim to addressing them. Do you really think India had less famines before the British built India’s railways enabling mass transportation of food and people?
            “…later British rulers stopped India from applying to the UN for famine aid…”
            Shocking and inexcusable if true, not something I know of thought TBH.

          • Hegelman

            One third of the province of Orissa perished in one famine under British rule. One third! It makes Stalin seem like chicken feed.

            One of the great causes of the repeated famines under British rule was the hard Right wing official doctrine of market economics. Grain was sold from areas in dire famine on the principle that you could not interfere with free trade, and the idea of feeding the starving was resisted on the grounds that it would make them dependent on the state. It took a very hard struggle to overcome that brutal attitude of the rulers even to a degree.

            Given the existence of the railways the repeated ravaging of India by famine is an all the more terrible indictment of British rule.

            Ireland has grim experience of British “free trade” famines, too. Its population has just about recovered even in numbers from the terrifying depopulations under British rule. Again, in sheer scale of social destruction it puts Stalin in the shade.

            Men who were colleagues of Churchill and in a position to assess him like Wavell ended up with the bitterest disillusion about his policies in India. I prefer their verdict to yours.

            As for “buying” from India – if the British cared a damn about the fragile state of the Indian food economy at the best of times, they would not have done so. They certainly did not allow foreigners to “buy” food from BRITAIN in wartime.

            You have to read respected authors like Madhusree Mukerjee (praised by Max Hastings, no less) and Mike Davis to get the sense of these things.

            The harsh truth is that Britain, like Russia, has a terrible history. The Russians more or less admit the horrors of their past; the British – or the English – paint a rosy picture of theirs and still cling to ghastly figures like Churchill whom Indians would spit on, as Scots would tear Cameron to pieces if he showed himself among them.

            Your game is over. You can’t fool anyone anymore.

          • FindingAtlantis

            The topic was about famines specifically created by the British, but nice attempt to sidestep blame away from this violent empire. What do you happens in circumstances where rice fields were confiscated and turned into operations to create sandbags, which left millions to die. Famines don’t necessarily mean mass deaths. The deaths (read: murders) happened as a result of British seizure of crop commidities like rice out of India (during famines) to feed Britain, and to sell to other markets for profit! Nothing more humane than making mass profits by exploiting the lives of the farmers themselves! Is this what they do in “progressive Britain”? Savages!

          • flipkipper

            Indeed. India is a secular society not dissimilar to Britain.

        • JSC

          Slavery has been rife in India for over 1000 years, and I seem to remember a recent report saying that along with China and Africa it is one of the few modern countries where it is still commonly practised. And don’t even get me started on the caste system.

          In short: enslaving people is not peculiar to white Anglo-Saxons.

  • twowolves

    India only helps India.

    • Hegelman

      So what?

  • Jayanta Roy Chowdhury

    Visit Gorkha villages perched on mountain tops … that is where Indian army is still at work rebuilding homes, treating injured … talk to those who were near Mt Everest … the guys who helped them were Indian Army docs … the heavy lift helicopters taking relief from one part of Nepal to another are Indian Air Force …. But this is not a race to get credit … For India, its a race to help cousins before the rains set in …

    • Hegelman

      Don’t bother to refute these professional India-haters.

    • Bonkim

      Give credit where it is due – but there was no need to send stale Parathas though.

  • Hegelman

    So yet again The Spectator has to sneer a India rather than see how the Nepalese can be helped.

    • Bonkim

      Give credit where it is due – why jump every time India is compared with China or seen in bad light? Sign of insecurity. Did your mum complain that you failed in school because of bad teachers.

      True Indians see all sides and learn to rely on their judgement – not taken in by what others say.

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