To backstop India’s influence in its extended neighbourhood, Friday’s Budget has raised the allocation for providing financial aid to friendly regional countries by over 26 per cent. Last year’s revised allocation of Rs 6,667 crore has been upped to Rs 8,415 crore in 2019-20.
The aid Budget has not just been raised, but redirected as well. While Bhutan retains its slot as India’s largest aid recipient, Indian Ocean island countries and littoral states feature high on the list of large aid recipients.
After Bhutan, which has been allocated Rs 2,802 crore this year, tiny Mauritius will be the second-largest recipient of Indian aid, with Rs 1,100 crore allocated. Another island nation, the Maldives, is in the fourth place with Rs 576 crore allocated. Seychelles has been allocated Rs 100 crore, while Rs 450 crore has been budgeted for African countries.
In all these Indian Ocean Region (IOR) countries, Beijing has expanded its presence using its financial heft and promises of infrastructure development. Now, New Delhi is equipping itself to compete, albeit with lesser resources.
A decade ago, New Delhi’s aid budget was just 30 per cent of what it is today. More than half of the Rs 2,428 crore Budget in 2009-10 went to Afghanistan and Bhutan, leaving little for the IOR countries. Seychelles and Mauritius did not feature on India’s aid list then and Maldives got a token Rs 3 crore.
Not until 2016-17 was financial aid earmarked for these IOR island states. That year also saw the first specific allocation for developing Chabahar Port, in Iran: a meaty Rs 100 crore. However, US sanctions on Iraq ensured no allocations were made in 2017-18 and 2018-19. This year, Chabahar features again, with an allocation of Rs 45 crore.
India’s humanitarian aid commitment to Afghanistan, which is widely praised by the international community, has tended to dominate New Delhi’s aid discourse. In fact, Budget documents show that Afghanistan is a distant second to Bhutan. Since 2001-02, India has disbursed Rs 5,931 crore to Afghanistan. During this period, Bhutan received Rs 40,850 crore. Even Nepal received almost as much as Afghanistan during this period: Rs 5,071 crore.
National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS)
Meanwhile, there is speculation over large expenditures by the NSCS, which have come to light in the Budget documents. While the NSCS budget for 2018-19 allocated Rs 304 crore, the revised allocations anticipate an expenditure of Rs 842 crore — almost thrice the budgeted sum. This includes a capital allocation of Rs 715 crore, whereas the Budget estimates did not allocate a capital budget to the NSCS.
Sources in the NSCS say there is curiosity within the secretariat about where this amount has been expended, and what assets have been created with the Rs 715 crore capital allocation. The NSCS recently occupied an additional floor in the government building it is headquartered in, but refurbishments could not have cost more than “a couple of crore”, say the sources.
The NSCS is an executive body that advises the prime minister’s office (PMO) on matters of national strategy and security. There are limitations on the audit scrutiny of expenditures made by the NSCS.