By Suhasini Hyder/The Hindu
New Delhi, August 13: India announced a slew of new connectivity measures for the Maldives, including air, sea, intra-island and telecommunications in an effort to help the Indian Ocean Islands deal with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the initiatives announced at a meeting between External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Maldives Foreign Minister Abdullah Shahid via videoconference on Thursday are an air connectivity “bubble” for travel, a direct ferry service, a submarine cable for telecom connectivity; and assistance for the Greater Male Connectivity project (GMCP) to connect Male to three neighbouring islands, the biggest such project thus far.
“Responding to a request from the Government of Maldives, the External Affairs Minister announced India’s decision to support the implementation of the GMCP in Maldives, through a financial package consisting of a grant of USD 100 million and a new Line of Credit (LoC) of USD 400 million,” the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement. The GMCP would be the “largest civilian infrastructure project in Maldives”, it noted.
The project, which will consist of a number of bridges and causeways to connect Male to Villingili, Thilafushi and Gulhifahu islands that span 6.7 km, taking much of the pressure of the main capital island of Male for commercial and residential purposes. The US $400 million Line of Credit comes in addition to a previous LoC of $800 million that was announced by New Delhi in December 2018.
Mr. Shahid called the project “a new milestone in India- Maldives ties that will anchor the economic and industrial transformation of the Maldives”, the MEA said.
Sources said Maldives President Ibrahim Solih had personally sought India’s assistance for the GMCP project during his visit to New Delhi in September 2019. When completed, the project would render the Chinese built Sinemale Friendship bridge connecting Male to two other islands, thus far the most visible infrastructure project in the islands, “insignificant in comparison”, the sources said.
In a veiled dig at China, Maldives parliament speaker and former President Mohammad Nasheed tweeted that the “super low cost assistance” announced by India came in sharp contrast to the “eye-wateringly expensive commercial loans that leaves the nation mired in debt”. Mr. Nasheed has been calling for the Solih government to cancel the loans given by China, something their party the MDP had promised during the election campaign.
Officials told The Hindu that India would also be the first country to initiate the “travel bubble” with the Maldives, beginning with an Air India flight from Delhi-Thiruvananthapuram-Male on August 18, as the tourism-dependent country attempts to restart its economy that has been badly hit by the pandemic. In addition, India would start the Cochin-Kulhudhuffushi-Male cargo ferry service shortly as well.
Solih Thanks Modi, India
“A landmark moment in Maldives-India cooperation today as we receive Indian assistance of USD250 million as budget support and USD500 million for the Greater Malé Connectivity Project,” said Mr. Solih in a tweet thanking Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India.
Both sides were finalising an additional soft loan arrangement as part of India’s decision to extend “urgent financial assistance” to the Maldives to cope with the COVID-19 situation, the MEA statement said .
At present, India-assisted projects in the region include water and sewerage projects on 34 islands, reclamation project for the Addl island, a port on Gulhifalhu, airport redevelopment at Hanimadhoo, and a hospital and a cricket stadium in Hulhumale.
(The image at the top shows Indian External Affairs Minister S.Jaishankar at the video conference with his Maldivian counterpart Abdulla Shaheed)