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Flat Earth: Plastering over the earthquake cracks

IT SOUNDS like a huge joke. Illiterate Indian barbers smearing their customers' beards with a sexual lubricant that they thought was shaving cream. Homeless labourers being presented with packets of dental floss, glow-in-the-dark sticking plaster and contact-lens cleaners. This, however, is part of the West's aid for victims of India's latest great disaster, the Maharasthra earthquake on 30 September that killed some 7,000 people and left tens of thousands homeless.

It is the unthinking result of the changed policy of Western support, which holds that goods, rather than cash, must be the basis of all emergency relief. Most of the flotsam came from the United States, although it was by no means alone. The toiletries went to the village of Latur, after it was 'adopted' by a group of foreign charities. Shipments to other 'adopted' villages included psychiatric drugs and crates of 'designer' softdrinks.