K. Male'
08 Nov 2020 | Sun 20:02
Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla arrives in the Maldives
Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla arrives in the Maldives
Foreign Ministry
Maldives - India
#INTERVIEW: Indian High Commissioner on Foreign Secretary’s visit to Maldives
“We will stand by your side and assist in any way possible”
“India and the Maldives are linked by ties of history, culture and geography“
Harsh Vardhan Shringla is visiting the Maldives from 8 - 10 November

The High Commissioner of India to the Maldives, Sunjay Sudhir, spoke with RaajjeMV rega Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla's visit to the Maldives, from 8 - 10 November.

This is the first visit of Indian Foreign Secretary to the Maldives since he took charge. How would you describe the relations between Maldives and India? What are some of the objectives of his visit?

HC: I thank you for the opportunity to reach your readers. I’m very happy that Indian Foreign Secretary is visiting the Maldives for the first time since he took charge as Foreign Secretary of India in January 2020. He would have surely visited this lovely country earlier. However, the COVID-19 pandemic struck us all and travel between nations shut down. Regardless, our two countries have found new ways to keep our lines of communication open and busy at the high levels.

It is satisfying that in spite of the pandemic, India and the Maldives have been able to continue work on the vast and dynamic bilateral agenda that our leaders had agreed upon during the State Visit of PM Modi in June 2019 and the earlier State Visit of President Solih in December 2018.

All components of the USD 1.4 billion economic assistance package announced during the State Visit of President Solih – USD 50 million in budget support grants, USD 150 million in T-Bill subscriptions by the SBI, USD 400 million under the RBI-MMA currency swap agreement, and perhaps, most important and far-reaching of all, 7 large infrastructure projects under a USD 800 million Line of Credit from the EXIM Bank of India – have been activated or are undergoing swift execution. The 7 large infrastructure projects identified by the Government of the Maldives include Water and Sewerage networks on 34 islands, Roads and Reclamation in Addu, Expansion of the Hanimaadhoo airport, Development of the Gulhifalhu Port, Cricket Stadium in Hulhumalé, Cancer Hospital, and, the Expansion of MIFCO’s facilities. Furthermore, we have committed support (USD 400 million Line of Credit and USD 100 million grant) to a talismanic and economically critical project like the Greater Male Connectivity Project (GMCP) that will link Male with Villingili, Gulhifalhu Port and Thilafushi, while the pandemic was ongoing. We hope jointly inaugurate 4-5 of these projects in the next couple of months. Such an influx of capital for infrastructure will be a strong countercyclical measure to rev up the economy in the Maldives in the short-term and provides assets that will bear fruit in the long term as well.

India’s assistance to the Maldives during the pandemic has been broad-based, multi-faceted and timely. India allowed more than 1000 Maldivians including patients and attendants to travel to India to access treatment, despite our borders not being fully open. India also extended USD 250 million as budget support to shore up Government finances through a concessional loan. Based on the requests we received from the Maldives from time to time, we supported the Maldives in essential supplies, imports of medical consumables, donation of essential medicines, etc. Our cooperation during this pandemic is a testament to our enduring and mutually beneficial bilateral partnership.

We have identified new frontiers in parliamentary, judicial, police, customs, arts, agriculture, marine resources and fisheries cooperation. We are also keen to take trade and investment ties to a higher level and the recent commencement of the cargo vessel service between India and the Maldives will be a key enabler in this effort. We have nearly 30 ongoing projects, some of them under our High Impact Community development Projects (HICDPs) scheme, which are grant projects that cater to the needs of the island communities.

Both PM Modi and President Solih are committed to expand and deepen our time-honored ties through the framework that we have established under the "Neighbourhood First" policy of India and the "India First" policy of the Maldives.

At present, our partnership is better than ever before in the past. Foreign Secretary’s visit will be a resumption of the regular high-level political exchanges we had before the pandemic. In his meetings with President Solih, Speaker Nasheed, Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, other Ministers and political leaders, he will highlight the importance that India accords to the Maldives in our foreign policy. We are confident that the visit will give an impetus to the implementation of our vast and mutually beneficial bilateral agenda and strengthen our relationship which is based on the shared values of democracy and the rule of law.

We observed a decline in assistance from India during the former administration, but the ambiance changed and Indian assistance increased to a great extent once President Solih assumed office, what is the reason behind this?

HC: India and the Maldives are linked by ties of history, culture and geography. Our peoples have interacted with each other for centuries and these interactions, along with shared values of democracy and the rule of law, form the bedrock of our partnership. This realtiosnhip has always been a source of strength for both countries. Both countries have always recognized that they have a joint responsibility to ensure that the region that we inhabit is safe, secure and conducive to mutual prosperity.

Under past Governments too, the India-Maldives partnership was strong since its primarily nourished by the intensity of our people-to-people contacts more than anything else. Since November 2018, under the leadership of PM Modi and President Solih, both sides have made focused and far-sighted efforts to broaden our areas of cooperation and deepen our existing engagements. We have signed nearly 20 MoUs since December 2018 including the one on Sports and Youth Affairs that will be signed during my visit. I have already mentioned India’s development assistance and support to the Maldives through LoCs, grants, capacity building and relief measures during COVID-19. The modern-day India-Maldives partnership is dynamic and result-oriented. The "Neighbourhood First" Policy of India and the "India First" Policy of the Maldives work in tandem to execute our bilateral agenda.

During my visit, I will have the privilege of engaging with a spectrum of political leaders in the Maldives. We feel that there is broad-based willingness in both countries to engage and build on the foundations of the past, and usher in a new forward-looking and result-oriented partnership that secures our region and furthers prosperity for all concerned.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted both India and the Maldives severely. India has supported us consistently during the pandemic. How do you see this cooperation going forward? What are some of the updates on the situation in India?

HC: You have seen the support extended by India to the Maldives during COVID-19. We began with the evacuation of Maldivians stranded in Wuhan, provided and airlifted tons of essential medicines required for your population, supported the preparedness of the local health system with the deployment of a medical team, and then, went on to provide food aid of 580 tons, maintained the supply of essential commodities from India despite trade disruptions, and also, allowed more than 1000 Maldivians including patients and attendants to travel to India to access treatment, despite our borders not being fully open. India also extended USD 250 million as budget support to shore up Government finances through a concessional loan. As I mentioned earlier, our assistance to the Maldives during the pandemic has been multi-faceted and timely. We are happy and privileged to lend a helping hand to a close and friendly people.

Our cooperation during this pandemic is another glorious chapter in our enduring bilateral partnership – one that is premised on mutual trust and benefit.

Tourism – as the main source of revenue for the Maldives – has suffered terribly during the pandemic. Do you think tourists from India will increase in numbers soon?

HC: In 2019, the number of Indian tourists visiting the Maldives surged by more than 100% to reach 167,000. India became the second largest tourism market for the Maldives due to the visa-free agreement signed in March 2019 and the increased number of flights between the countries.

After the pandemic struck us, there has been an expected slowdown in tourist flows. However, to mitigate the impact of this on the Maldives, we have activated an air travel bubble between the two nations since August 2020. The India-Maldives air travel bubble was the first of its kind in South Asia. It now connects 5 cities in India with Male’ through 13 weekly flights. Tourist arrivals from India have shown a steep upward trend in October.

Foreign Secretary will be calling on the Minister for Tourism Dr. Abdullah Mausoom. The Maldives has done remarkably well in adverse circumstances by opening up its borders and promoting the country as a safe destination. The efforts of your Government are paying off as we can see in the recent statistics. We will be discussing further avenues to promote tourist linkages between India and the Maldives. Tourism is at the heart of the economic recovery in the Maldives, and India realises that. We will stand by your side and assist in any way possible.

Defence and security is an important aspect of the India-Maldives relationship. What is your perspective on defence and security ties between our two countries?

HC: The India-Maldives defence and security partnership is time-tested and mutually beneficial like the other dimensions of our relationship. Indian and Maldivian armed forces have a strong history of collaboration to enhance peace and security in the regions, as well as for humanitarian relief.

The Maldives has a large EEZ of 1 million square kilometres. While such a large EEZ presents opportunities and resources for your nation, it also entrusts an onerous responsibility upon Maldivian defence and security agencies. Since 2009, Indian and Maldivian armed forces have conducted joint EEZ patrolling to keep these waters safe from drug traffickers, illegal fishing and other criminal activity. India and the Maldives also conduct joint exercises such as Ekatha, Ekuverin and Dosthi at periodic intervals. Hundreds of MNDF personnel are trained in India every year. These add to the capabilities of the MNDF in executing its responsibilities.

Both nations realise that we hold a shared responsibility to ensure the safety and security of this region, to enhance mutual prosperity. Under PM Modi and President Solih, we have strengthened our defence and security partnership. India is committed to complete ongoing projects such as the Coastal Surveillance Radar System (CSRS), additional facilities at the Composite Training Centre (CTC) of the MNDF, the construction of the MoD building, etc. Firefighting and training for firefighters is a new area of cooperation we are exploring. We stand ready to assist the MNDF with operational, infrastructure and training requirements, based on the priorities of the Maldives.

Questions have been raised in some quarters about the role of Indian armed forces in the Maldives. What is your comment? Do you feel the ‘IndiaOut’ campaign is justified? Some opposition parties are even mentioning that India may invade the Maldives. What has been the contribution of Indian defence forces in supporting the people and the government of Maldives.

HC: Last week the Maldives celebrated Victory Day. This was the day in 1988 when, on the request of the then President Mr Maumoon Gayoom, Indian defence forces reached within hours to quell an armed coup against the government. They effectively eliminated the threat and apprehend the perpetrators. Speech of former Pres Maumoon Gayoom made in 1988 has gone viral on social media in which he profusely thanks the Indian armed forces and the quick response from the Indian government to safeguard the sovereignty of the Maldives. In his tweets last week, he again expressed deep gratitude to India to preserve the sovereignty and independence of the Maldives. World leaders like the President of the US and PM of the UK also applauded this quick and timely action. The defence forces left after exactly one year when Government of Maldives wanted them to return. That is recorded history. So, the people who are building fear psychosis about Indian military intentions are ill informed and motivated. History tells a different story.

It is also recorded history that whenever there has been a humanitarian crisis in the Maldives, it is Indian defence forces which have come to the rescue. India’s armed forces were involved in tsunami relief and rehabilitation operations in the Maldives in 2004 and again during the water crisis in Male in 2014.

For more recent examples, you would recall that even during the pandemic, Operation Sanjeevani, launched by the Indian Air Force, in April 2020, airlifted essential medicines ordered by the Maldives from four cities in India and brought them to the Maldives. In May 2020, Under Mission SAGAR, INS Kesari delivered 580 tons of food aid to ensure food security for the Maldives.

The helicopters provided by India since 2010 and 2016 have been undertaking humanitarian assistance, EEZ surveillance, and, search and rescue operations under the command and control of the MNDF. More than 250 Maldivian lives have been saved through medical evacuations. The Dornier aircraft provided since September 2020 has added to the capabilities of the MNDF in this regard. Last week the Dornier also evacuated a new born from Addu in a medical emergency and saved his life. We are also undertaking capacity building of MNDF personnel involved in these operations on a regular basis. Some Maldivians have already been trained as Dornier pilots. More trainings will be done in the future.

With the high caliber and capabilities of Indian defence forces and the determination of the Government of India to assist the Government and people of the Maldives in crises times, they have proven time and again as to who comes to the rescue.

Some local figures also claim that the financial assistance provided by India is a debt trap. Has India provided any ease when providing financial assistance to Maldives as a neighbor?

HC: Transparency and partnership are cornerstones of India’s development assistance to partner nations. We have embarked on a partnership comprising 8 large infrastructure projects funded through Lines of Credit (LoCs) worth USD 1.2 billion from the EXIM Bank of India.

Each of these projects have been identified by the Government of Maldives. The terms and conditions of these LoCs are transparent, available online, and imbued with a spirit of partnership and consultation. All these projects will undergo stringent tendering processes to ensure that the value of the asset created matches the borrowing. The tender documents are prepared through consultations between both nations. The final tendering will be undertaken by the Government of Maldives. The LoCs have a moratorium of 5 years - no debt repayment is incurred till 2026 - and a total repayment period of 20 years.

The USD 250 million financial assistance offered to the Maldives as budget support in September 2020, was a concessional loan provided at the softest possible terms, keeping in mind the need to not burden the Government of Maldives with a large debt servicing obligation for at least another ten years.

How do you see the Indo-Pacific geopolitical construct impacting the Maldives?

HC: The Indo-Pacific region is inter-connected. We all have a joint responsibility to keep the region safe and secure for peace and prosperity of our peoples. It is important to uphold a rules based international order and keep sea lanes of communication open and free. Maldives being located at heart of the Indian ocean, has always played a key role in promoting regional security. India will work alongside the Maldives in supporting this role.

Last updated at: 2 years ago
Reviewed by: Aishath Shaany