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May 2, 2015

Oxfam India gets government approval to respond to #NepalEarthquake in 28 hours

Nisha   /   Nisha Agrawal

Nepal emergency response: Oxfam India

A young girl helping to clear up in the search for bodies under the debris of the temples at Patan Durbar Square a few hours after the earthquake hit. Photo credit: Shristi Rajbhandari.

Oxfam India is a humanitarian organisation and we wanted to respond immediately to the devastating earthquake in Nepal. But we couldn’t. The fact that Indian NGOs can’t respond outside of India was distressing. A feeling of helplessness set in.

Day 1: 

April 25, 2015 (Saturday): Nepal is devastated by a massive earthquake

I was on an airplane to Bengaluru for the Trailwalker awards night when  a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal. My family in Delhi felt the shocks too and informed me they are safe.

We soon found out that our Himalayan neighbourwas the epicentre of this earthquake, one of the worst in over 80 years.

Scenes of horror start to flash on all news channels. The current death toll, when I am writing this, has crossed 6000 and is expected to rise. Thousands more are severely injured. People’s homes have been reduced to rubble, families have lost loved ones and thousands are sitting in the open without food, water and shelter.

I attend the Trailwalker awards night with a heavy heart. Even in my welcome speech, I read out a quote from Cecilia Keizer, Oxfam Country Director in Nepal: “Communication is very difficult. Telephone lines are down and the electricity has been cut off. The water is also cut off. The number of people killed is continuing to rise”.

That night, a friend of mine asks about the Trailwalker ceremony and I could only share my distress that we couldn’t respond to the Nepal earthquake. He advised that India has free trade with Nepal, so for Indian NGOs to raise funds for the country in this time of crisis should also be allowed.

Day 2

April 26, 2015 (Sunday): Friends of Oxfam India write to the Reserve Bank of India seeking permission to raise funds for Nepal

With a new-found energy we pursued the prospect of seeking permission from the Government and the RBI. The next morning, which was a Sunday, we wrote to our contacts and networks who approached the Central Bank on our behalf and they responded immediately giving their confirmation to support our effort without any objection. That was very encouraging!

Day 3

April 27, 2015 (Monday): Clearance required from Central Bureau of Direct Taxes (CBDT), Ministry of Finance

We found out that the next step was to get a clearance from the Central Bureau of Direct Taxes (CBDT), Ministry of Finance. This is essential because incomes raised in India for humanitarian purposes will get a tax exemption and it was for the CBDT and the Government to decide whether they wanted to use public funds for that purpose, outside of India.

Day 4:

April 28, 2015 (Tuesday): I go to the CBDT office. Asked to submit relevant documents, which I do so in one hour as Oxfam India has all the necessary paperwork in place

I went to the office of CBDT on Tuesday morning to get clearance. We were asked to submit relevant documents, which I was able to within an hour as Oxfam India is fully compliant with all regulations and has all the necessary paperwork in place.

At this point the Government realised that apart from Oxfam India, other NGOs would also want to respond to the disaster in Nepal. They quickly took a decision to allow all interested NGOs to be part of the humanitarian efforts in Nepal and started working on setting some guidelines and a checklist.

These guidelines and the checklist were uploaded on their website by the end of the day and circulated widely to all NGOs. The Government also issued a press release saying they had decided to fast track all applications within two working days.

Day5: 

April 29, 2015 (Wednesday): Oxfam India applies for the permission to raise funds after submitting all the documents in the checklist. Government and CBDT says it will fast track all applications in two working days.

On Wednesday noon I submitted the application along with all the documents required in the checklist. 

By now it was Day 5, and the waiting and the watching of the death toll rise and the people in distress started to get to the entire team. Oxfam India was having its management team meeting, but our thoughts were in Nepal, and we felt that our patience was being tested.   

Day 6:

April 30, 2015 (Thursday): Oxfam India gets the permission at 4pm. That’s 28 hours after the application was submitted, instead of 48 hours.

Throughout the day, we kept monitoring and tracking the situation and calling the Ministry of Finance. We were worried that if we did not get the application by cob on Thursday, the next day May 1 (Labour Day) might be a holiday and then we would then have to wait another 3 days. I got a call at 4pm on Thursday evening with the final go ahead and the letter of permission was faxed to our office.  The team rushed out to swing into action, leaving the meeting room half empty!

I am grateful to the Government for giving us permission in 28 hours, instead of 48 hours.I must also compliment the Government for re-looking at the policy, putting out the guidelines, processing the applications and giving permission in four days.The default expectation of Government departments is for processing to take weeks and months but this was done in a few days which is amazing. 

I believe that now that India is a middle income country and an important development partner for many countries, especially for our neighbouring countries, it should review this policy for the future and recognize that NGOs have an important role to play in humanitarian aid.  It should not wait for the next big disaster to strike before the current policy is revised.  

The people of Nepal have been waiting for food, water and shelter. 

Written by: Nisha Agrawal, CEO, Oxfam India

 

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