Why does the Maldives need airport upgrade?

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The Maldives by Mayank Chhaya

It is rare, if not altogether unprecedented, that the full force of India’s diplomatic machine is activated in support of a private consortium against another country.

That is what is going on between India and the tiny Indian Ocean island nation of the Maldives, often seen as the former’s adjunct state, over the cancellation of a contract to manage and upgrade the Ibrahim Nasir international airport.

An Indian-Malaysian consortium led by GMR Infrastructure Limited has found a strong ally in the Indian government in general and the country’s External Affairs Ministry (Foreign Ministry) in particular as it battles the dramatic cancellation by the Maldives of its $500 million dollar Male airport contract.

What has particularly stunned the parties involved is the Maldivian government’s defiance of an order by the Singapore High Court staying the cancellation. The island nation wants GMR out of the airport right away as it goes about taking control. There were reports of force being used if the company did not comply but those reports have now been denied.

India, whose writ has always run large in the Maldives, is deeply upset at the cancellation and has conveyed as much to the government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik.

India’s Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid has let the Maldives know that any precipitate action before the legal process has taken its course would have “adverse consequences” for bilateral relations between the two countries.

During a phone conversation with the Maldives’ Foreign Minister Abdul Samad Abdullah, Khursheed was quoted as having emphasized that "the legal processes involved in the GMR case should be permitted to take their own course based on the contractual obligations of the parties involved.”

According to the IANS wire, Syed Akbaruddin, the spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, said the following:

"The Maldivian government should not allow the situation to go out of hand… In this context, it is expected that no arbitrary and coercive measures should be taken pending the outcome of the legal process underway," the spokesman said. "Resort to any such actions would inevitably have adverse consequences for relations between India and the Maldives," he added.

From the looks of it, the GMR airport contract appears to have fallen prey to the island nation’s presidential politics. The contract was originally granted by the country’s former President Mohamed Nasheed, who was ousted in what was only much later called a coup, in February this year. Nasheed has described the cancellation as being motivated by a combination of xenophobia, nationalism and religious extremism.

Under the contract the consortium can operate the airport for 25 years. It also contains a clause that says all disputes have to resolved only by either Singapore or British courts. It is that clause that the Maldivian government could be in violation of with the arbitrary cancellation, according to reports. There are is a Wall Street Journal report by Prasenjit Bhattacharya quoting an official of the island government saying that GMR could get a compensation of $220 million for the cancellation.

Those are the bare facts. Now here is my gratuitously cynical, albeit very short, take on the situation.

Since I was among the first journalists to report in 1990 the island nation’s most serious existential threat due to rising sea levels caused by global climate change I may have some marginal right to be cynical.

For a country whose highest elevation is barely six feet, whose former President Nasheed in 2009 famously went shopping for an alternative homeland for its close to 400,000 citizens and which has from time to time warned that the Indian Ocean waters would swallow it any moment, it seems a bit cavalier to invest a half billion dollars in an airport. If we take all that has been said about the existential threat to the Maldives’ survival seriously, it seems to me that it would be a bit foolish to build a new airport terminal.

I understand that there was a strong element of theatrics in the former president looking for an alternative homeland and once holding a cabinet meeting underwater wearing a snorkel to highlight the problem of global warming. Notwithstanding and knowing all that why would anyone give out a 25-year airport contract?

I was told in 1990 by some rather alarmist environmental activists that the Maldives may not see the dawn of the 21st century. We are in 2012 and the country is debating a 25-year-long airport contract for its capital.

It is not my case at all that the country is not facing the rising sea level threat because I saw that firsthand at its edges. Standing along the embankment constructed to hold off the ocean waters in Male one could feel the very real possibility of the place going under. Obviously, it is a matter of educated guesswork when the sea level would rise enough to submerge the Maldives. For all you know nothing may happen for a long time. Or something unrelated to global climate change, such as a massive tsunami caused by a massive earthquake in the region could speed up its submergence.

As an aside, didn’t anyone from GMR feel compelled to ask former President Nasheed, why he looked for an alternative homeland in 2009, held an underwater cabinet meeting and yet decided to give the airport contract in 2010? Just saying. (This is such a delightfully copout expression).

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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