Evening Standard

British aid to India was once an admirable, benevolent gesture. But to carry on giving aid is a colossal failure to understand how the country has changed.

Just consider the new India. The ninth largest economy in the world by GDP, it is growing at over seven per cent and is predicted to overtake the UK by 2022. There are more billionaires in India than in this country. Since India gained independence in 1947, Indians have squirrelled away more than £900 billion in Swiss bank accounts, more than the rest of the world combined. India also gives £3.5 billion of aid to Africa and is spending £2 billion to put Indians into space.

The perfect example of this new India is the 27-storey skyscraper in Mumbai built by the industrialist Mukesh Ambani. At a cost of £2 billion, it is the most expensive house in the world.

So why should British taxpayers send India £260 million of aid a year, which will amount to over a billion by 2015? Defenders of aid argue that India still has 600 million people living on less than $2 a day. That amounts to 30 per cent of the world’s poor, more than in all of sub-Saharan Africa. By giving aid, Britain is reaching out to parts of India nobody else does, not even Indians. And no doubt it gives the British a nice moral glow. But it certainly does not buy influence.

This was cruelly demonstrated this week when the Indians, whose defence budget tops £22 billion, decided to buy 126 Rafale French planes rather than the British-backed Eurofighter Typhoon.

In the India that made that decision, British aid does not matter. Many Indians do not even know the British give aid and would not care if it stopped.

They would argue that their preference for the French fighters was based on pragmatic considerations of cost. As the Indians see it, they are a mature democracy. The country has many problems, not least corruption. But it has proved wrong the western naysayers who, at the time of independence, predicted India would collapse while Pakistan, unified by its Muslim religion, would thrive.

So grown-up is this India that it no longer feels chippy about British rule. On a recent trip to some of India’s most revered monuments I was struck by how often the guide acknowledged the work of British rulers in helping to preserve these sites.

Britain’s status in India has declined: it is otherwise hard to explain why, for the past seven months, there has been only an acting High Commissioner in London. But there is still affection for the British. Last summer the Indian cricket captain used a Park Lane hotel to launch his sports foundation and not a week goes by without some Bollywood star visiting London. And during last week’s Republic Day celebrations, the present given to the guests was a DVD of beating the retreat, the British military tradition that is such an essential part of the Indian army. Yet India’s Republic Day was hardly noticed in this country.

Britain would be much better advised to forget the nonsense that aid helps to build ties. What is needed is to develop links with the new India based on a shared history, which the Indians are now ready to acknowledge.


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