An Indian Doctor in Every Island, An Indian Teacher in Every School...

India & Maldives

Indian nurses, most of them from Kerala, toil hard in local hospitals, alongside doctors, and lab and other technicians from similar backgrounds, to serve the local population

In no other area of Maldivian life is the immediate presence and contributions of the local Indian community as visible as in health and education. Every inhabited island may have an Indian doctor and nurses, and every local school may have an Indian teacher. This is not to rule out other walks of life, such as banking, commercial establishments, hospitality, construction and other infrastructure industries, where Indians are working along with local Maldivians, to boost the nation’s economy and relations between their two nations and civilisations.

The vegetarian school teachers from south India in interior Maldivian islands live on their own, cook their own vegetarian meals, and live almost by themselves outside of school hours. Indian nurses, most of them from Kerala, toil hard in local hospitals, alongside doctors, and lab and other technicians from similar backgrounds, to serve the local population. In a nation with moderate Sufi religious practices of Sunni Islam, women teachers and nurses with bindi on their forehead or with jasmine flowers (brought by a colleague, who had just returned from home after a holiday) on their long and pleated hair, are thus not uncommon, for the local community to feel alien.

There can be no denying that today’s students in Maldivian schools, and the people in the spread out islands and atolls have a cause to remember India with fondness and appreciation for the contributions made by the Indians in improving the life and livelihoods of many of them. The appreciation is mutual, as the teachers, doctors and nurses do have no great cause for complaining while working in a home- away-from-home.

Independent of the professionals in education and healthcare sectors, pharmaceuticals and stationery suppliers from southern India, particularly southern Tamil Nadu and south Kerala, too have been doing decent business across Maldives, and at the same time, make both medicines and books as cost effective as possible for locals under the prevailing circumstances. Needless to say, the import cost of medicines and stationery items, like those for food and other requirements of daily use, is cheaper in India than from any other country, near or afar.

Non Quantifiable Contribution

Indians are also at work in construction sites and other infrastructure work at ports and airports. The monetary contribution that they take back home as salaries and wages are quantifiable at best. Their own contribution to the Maldivian economy and that of individual homes and offices is not exactly quantifiable. It owes to more reasons than one.

You cannot fix a price tag on a doctor or a nurse saving a life that is dear to the family and the local community. One cannot quantify the worth of a teacher, away from his own home and circumstances, when one of his students grows up to make positive policies for his nation – or, becomes an educator, in turn, in his time. Considering that for over the past three decades and more, Maldives has made great commitments and greater strides in education and healthcare, the Indian contribution is immeasurable, indeed.

There is also the other reason for the inability to quantify Indians’ contribution to the betterment of Maldives. It owes to the absence of any mechanism to do measure or quantify the same. It also owes to the fact that many, if not most Indians are working also in the informal sector, be it on construction sites or in homes as cooks and drivers. There have also been a few cases of Indian expatriates marrying local girls and settling down, at times with local citizenship. Yet, they continue to keep contact with India and their relatives and friends back home.

That way, the role of the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) in the capital city of Male, funded by the Indian government and named after the former prime minister, is the beehive of healthcare activities in Maldives. Recently, the Government of India funded the hospital’s modernisation and upgradation after local initiatives to look elsewhere for aid and support did not fructify.

That way, there is an equally urgent need for taking healthcare in particular to the islands. It is here that India can and needs to offer equipment as much as aid, and technicians as much as doctors and teachers. With hospital equipment, starting with a refrigerator or an air conditioner, needing repairs, and having to wait for spare imports from donor nations in distant lands, India needs to look at the options, if the potential of Indian doctors and nurses at work are to bear fruit. It is true of computers at work in local schools, donated by distant nations and their NGOs.

Pending other plans for government and private sector outfits in the healthcare sector from India setting up branches in Maldives, the Government of India should actively consider the need and desirability of establishing institutional linkages between IGMH, Male and those like the Sri Chitra Medical Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, for super speciality medical care. Likewise, the Government of India may also consider facilitating higher education admissions for more Maldivian students in centrally-sponsored institutions, particularly in cities with better connectivity from Male.

Removing Irritants, Improving Ties

Where issues remain, governments on the two sides have sought to iron them out – and also the ruffled feathers on either side. Government agencies on both sides work closely and consistently to ensure that the quality of professionals and skilled manpower hired from India have the right kind of qualifications and disposition. Whether employed by government institutions or the private sector, visa and travel procedures, leave entitlement and enjoyment are not hampered.

Particularly in the context of unskilled labour from India, the Maldivian government in particular needs to check against unscrupulous job agents and agencies misleading migrant labour in terms of recruitment procedures and conditions of employment. It also needs to have its authorities check against over-exploitation of migrant labour in terms of salary/wages and hours of work, and also ensure that domestic employers adhere to the norms. Governments in India, both at the Centre and in the States, should create local mechanisms to check against such illegal activities of job racketeers.

Coordination and cooperation, particularly at the instance of the Maldivian government, is required even more to check against violation of employment regulations by local employers. Seizure of employees’ passports, forced over stay after completion of the contractual period and thus making the migrant vulnerable to legal action at the instance of government agencies, wilful non-payment and partial payment of committed wages are among the wrongs that need to be corrected. The alleged involvement of a section of the officialdom on either side is also a cause for concern.

For now, the Maldivian administration has reportedly addressed the proven Indian concerns about government institutions like schools and hospitals holding back the passport of migrant employees, and not releasing them in time for them to rush back home to attend to emergency situations. It needs to pursue the effort in other sectors, particularly the private sector, and more so involving large scale deployment of unorganised labour, as much outside Male as inside the national capital.

People-to-People Contact

With the Indian High Commission taking the lead, at least two organisations committed to promoting bilateral relations on the one hand and people-to-people contact on the other have been functioning in Male. The ‘India-Maldives Friendship Association’ and the ‘Friendship Association of India-Maldives’ need to expand their activities outside of Male, and also to the multiple sections of Indian migrants working in the country.

Steps should also be taken for opening Indian branches of such organisations in cities like Thiruvananthapuram, where a substantial number of Maldivians arrive on a daily basis, and have problems of their own. While the office of the Maldivian Consulate in the Kerala capital has been helpful, non-governmental organisations can go a long way in cherishing people-to-people contact even more.

Tourism Promotion

There is more to be done on this front. Maldives as a tourist destination has hosted more and more Indian tourists over the past decades. However, it is nowhere compared to the tourist potential that India can offer. Indian tourism promoters need to take lessons from their Chinese counterparts, who, over a very short span, have ensured that their nationals top the chart on the highest number of overseas tourists visiting Maldives. With that, the Chinese have also broken the barrier that Maldives is for high spending tourists from the West.

Today, local airliners in India and Maldives link the two countries. The official Maldivian airline links Male to Chennai and on to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Those aircraft carry mostly migrant labour and their families at best. Instead, these aircraft and others should be carrying more and more Indian tourists to Maldives, and Maldivian students, their families, patients requiring speciality medical care and holiday makers to India.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.