India Pushes for Food Aid To Its Refugees in Iraq

Diplomatic squabbling at the UN over when humanitarian aid to Iraq is allowed has delayed Indian help for stranded citizens

NEARLY 175,000 Indians trapped in Kuwait and Iraq are experiencing serious shortages of food, water, and other essentials, according to Indian officials. India, along with China and other countries, has mounted an international diplomatic effort to pressure the United Nations to allow New Delhi to send food and medicine to its citizens stranded in the Gulf.

India's efforts have run into trouble on two counts. Iraq refuses to allow Indian planes and ships into Baghdad or the city of Basra unless they carry food. And the countries enforcing the economic blockade against Iraq have not allowed India to send aid.

India launched a massive evacuation operation last week to bring refugees back from Jordan. Fifteen civilian, military, and chartered aircraft and two ships have brought about 25,000 citizens home. Another 25,000 Indians are living in tents near Amman and along the Iraq-Jordan border, awaiting repatriation.

George Joseph of Bangalore, India, managed to return last weekend with his wife. ``Food is hard to come by,'' he says of conditions at Jordanian camps. ``There's not enough water to drink during the day and no blankets to protect oneself from the cold. If food, water, blankets, and medicines are not rushed to Amman soon, thousands of Asians may die in the next couple of weeks.''

On Sunday in Helsinki, United States President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev noted that food and medicine could be sent to Iraq and Kuwait ``in humanitarian circumstances.'' (See story at right.)

On Monday, India began to airlift food and medicine to Jordan, shipping thirty-one tons of food and nine tons of medicine. An airlift of the same amount will continue daily for the next 15 days as a gift to the Jordanian government from the Indian government. It was not clear when it would be possible to send similar supplies to Indians trapped in Kuwait and Iraq.

But the fate of its stranded citizens is not the only thing worrying India. The Gulf stalemate is costing India approximately $10 million a day. This estimate includes the loss of commodity exports to Iraq and Kuwait, stoppage of remittances from nearly 200,000 Indians who worked in the two countries, and the increased cost of India's petroleum imports.

Last year, India spent $3.5 billion to import the almost 25 million tons of fuel it buys annually from the international market. Of this, almost 10 million tons of fuel came from Iraq and Kuwait. Since the price has shot up to $31 a barrel, India will now have to spend about $6.5 billion annually.

India this year was to have exported about $70 million worth of commodities to Iraq and about $110 million worth to Kuwait. And the 200,000 Indians working in the two countries had sent about $400 million home each year. These remittances have stopped. Government officials also worry that jobs need to be found for the arriving refugees, but there are already 30 million job seekers in India.

During the past decade, Iraq accounted for 60 percent of India's project exports, valued at $2.8 billion. Iraq still owes India $400 million of that amount. This year, Baghdad was supposed to pay $85 million of the debt through supplying additional oil.

India foresees losses estimated at $3.7 billion over the next 12 months. As India's foreign debt amounts to about $70 billion, the current situation may force India to approach the International Monetary Fund for a loan.

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