From Sand and Sand Dunes to Bricks and Rocks

India & Maldives

It may have owed to the timing of the Indian ban on export of ‘aggregates’ and river sand required for construction industry nearer home and afar

In the final analysis, nothing explains India-Maldives relations better than their continuing/revived trade in construction material, which is a basic input for resort tourism and other economic expansion activities that the Indian Ocean archipelago very badly needs for its development and the betterment of its people. There are hiccups on this score, caused by greater environmental concerns and awareness in India, particularly southern Tamil Nadu, where both courts and social activists are out to stop over-exploitation of natural resources, including river sand and granite; the latter when broken down into ‘aggregates’, form a major input for the construction industry of the Maldivian kind.

There is, however, little appreciation of the Indian predicament in this regard in Maldives. It may have owed to the timing of the Indian ban on export of ‘aggregates’ and river sand required for construction industry nearer home and afar. That the Indian ban got entangled with the ‘communication gap’ that had evolved between the two nations over the avoidable ‘GMR row’ in recent years only added to the shared woes and consequent misunderstanding, even more.

Short of inputs of the Indian kind back home, Maldivian officials and commoners alike often have failed to take note of the problems faced by the Indian infrastructure majors over the past five years and more, owing to court restrictions/ban on coal-mining in a very big way. Many parts of the country have had long weeks, months and years of long, intermittent – and at times scheduled – hours of power cuts, as there is no coal in their power plants to feed the turbines. It will be wrong to attribute all of such court/NGO interventions to allegations of large scale corruption in the allotment of coal fields for private/government companies to exploit. Overriding those concerns are also those pertaining to ecological issues.

'Poster Boy' on Climate Change

In this context, Maldivians need to relate it all to the problems that they have all been seeking to highlight over the past decades, on the real possibilities of the nation as a whole going under water, owing to ecological backlash, caused by wanton environmental degradation and destruction, for which they cannot be blamed. If help in the form of slowing down the ill effects of climate change falls wholly on the shoulders of the developed First World nations, it is India, and possibly India alone that can help Maldives and Maldivians, if and when the ‘climate threat’ hits them hard and real.

Long before the world took notice of Maldives’ predilection on this front, then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and his government had begun flagging the issue in global forums, particularly of small, island States. His successor, President Mohammed Nasheed took it up/over in his own inimitable style. Not only did he become a sort of ‘poster-boy’ for the West at the failed Cancun Summit on climate change in November 2010, but he also held an underwater Cabinet meeting, which drew the attention of the whole world to the plight of Maldives and Maldivians in the years and decades to come. The government of incumbent President Abdulla Yameen is also aware of the perils that await the nation if it were not to address its own concerns flowing from threats of climate change that are real, immediate and life threatening.

On his election as president after the first ever multi-party democratic elections in October 2008, Nasheed espoused the cause for Maldives to be shifted lock, stock and barrel to another location. He mentioned Sri Lanka, India and Australia, not necessarily in that order, as possible venues and avenues for such a ‘shift’. The relatively small Maldivian population (put at around 350,000) makes it a theoretical possibility, but there are issues, both State and politics-centric in making that happen.

As ‘Ecological refugees’, Maldivians could still count on India and Indians, with a rich and continuing tradition of hospitality particularly for those in dire need, to secure them, protect them, and even house them in the midst of its billions, without anyone having to feel the ‘pinch’. In context and contrast, Sri Lanka that many Maldivians may feel as a ‘natural second home’ may have its own limitations and reservations that could go beyond fiscal and demographic issues. Australia or any other nation could rule itself out for near similar reasons though they may have no reservations whatsoever about large scale migration of individuals from Maldives, as from any other Third World nation, faith and language no bar.

Equating the Equations

It is in this context and background that Maldives and Maldivians (of all political and social hues and convictions) need to evaluate bilateral and regional relations with India in a long term perspective than at present. As has become evident over the past years, if not decades, Maldives has been increasingly looking up to China, among others, for massive investments on the developmental front. India cannot but appreciate their needs and demands, which, as a developing world, it may still not be able to meet until it reaches those levels of economic prosperity. That will have to wait until the future, which would be unfair on smaller neighbours like Maldives.

The residual issue is about Maldives, like many of India’s other neighbours, having to strike a balance. The signals that emanate from Male from time to time over the past years and under different governments have not comforted India, particularly the eternally allergic sections of its strategic community. There is also the growing Indian concern about adversaries of India, be they faith based, ideology driven or historically tuned, using smaller neighbours to launch a non-State war of the terrorist kind from their soil.

It is not about Indian suspicions in the matter. As an early victim of orchestrated cross-border terrorism for long, India understands the dynamics and mechanics of how it all works. It also makes it clear to India where weak links exist and how extra territorial players are not unlikely to exploit the same in third nations in the neighbourhood, to target India. Here, it is as much about terror-attacks as about the excessive wielding of political influence and diplomatic pressure, in lieu of economic aid that is almost free and for the asking. The question is if and how Maldives wants to do the balancing act, and in a way it benefits both nations, now and ever.

Gateway to Prosperity

In a way, Tuticorin Port in Tamil Nadu has become an early ‘gateway to economic prosperity’ of Maldives and Maldivians once they divined ‘resort tourism’ and consequent funding in healthcare and education, for converting the land of sand and sand dunes into a brick and granite reality that the nation is today. India’s silent contribution to the growth and development of Maldives through these testing decades was acknowledged as much and in a similar fashion in the past. Now, Indians are left with the feeling that Maldivians see themselves only as job givers to needy Indians in various sectors of the nation’s economy and growth – tourism, medical care and education, among others.

For the long term, there is an urgent need for both nations to clear the cobwebs of mutual suspicion and mistrust that have been allowed to gather in more recent years. The contribution of the ‘GMR row’ to estrangement in the economic, diplomatic and political relations can be overlooked only at the cost of present and future relations between the two neighbouring nations that are also great civilisations.

The fact is that the average Indian’s knowledge and/or understanding/misunderstanding about Maldives begins and mostly ends with local media reports on the ‘GMR row’. Where it extends to cover other aspects of Maldivian life, it is often about suspicions of Maldives harbouring and/or nurturing anti-India terror groups. Even a casual reading of the address of Maldivian delegation leader and former President Dr Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in 2014 shows how the government in Male continues to be concerned about outfits like the ‘IS’ in Iraq and Syria.

Indians want those concerns, for instance, to be extended to cover the ISI, as well. In September 2014, reports of interrogation of Sri Lankan nationals arrested in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, have shown how ISI recruits were looking out for Maldivians to sneak into India and ‘form’ sleeper-cells, to bomb local targets. It is nobody’s conclusion in India that this has the blessings of the Maldivian authorities or any section of the nation’s polity – though select and at times ill informed Indian media reports may suggest otherwise. If anything, such expose has the potential to bring security agencies and political leaderships of the two nations closer together than earlier – and at every turn.

For all this to happen, both nations will have to put the ‘GMR past’ behind them, and make constant and concerted efforts to present each other in the right tone and spirit to their own polity and populations. Though there are not as many Indian tourists visiting Maldives as even the lower spending Chinese (compared to the high spending Westerners), for two neighbourhood nations wanting to build future relations on increased people-to-people contact, there is almost no contact between the visiting Indian tourists and the Maldivian population. Likewise, Maldivians studying in India (particularly in and around Thiruvananthapuram and Bengaluru) face limitations and reservations in communicating with locals. Here, language is not exactly the problem. There is also no great cultural chasm. Yet, there is little or no understanding among the people of India about the ‘moderate Islam’ that is still in vogue in Maldives despite the sudden resurgence of traditional Arab Islamic lifestyle in recent years.

The new generation Maldivian youth is seen as much in pro-democracy protests along Male’s streets in their hundreds as they are seen in local mosques for the five prayers in the day. The woman, young or old, behind the newly introduced hijab is as modern in her thoughts and practices as their forebears were known to be for generations and centuries.

Indians need to understand this. Maldivians also need to understand India and its concerns in its totality. Neither can act like the ‘blind men feeling the elephant’ and hope to understand it all by feeling the tail or the trunk, leg or the skin. Bilateral relations between the two countries are all this and more. And the earlier that the people of both countries are helped to understand this, the better it will be for their collective prosperity and security – and also of their people, now and almost forever!

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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.