Originally Published 2020-05-12 10:08:12 Published on May 12, 2020
Maldives: Evacuation, yet another-milestone in bilateral ties

In a historic initiative, which also has elements of bilateral cooperation at all levels, Indian naval vessel, INS Jalashwa, an amphibious vessel, evacuated nearly 700 Indian nationals, stuck in the archipelago in the aftermath of the post-Covid global lock-down. India has been helping and coordinating with Maldivian authorities for the return of Maldivians also who were likewise stuck in India for the very same reason, and rushing a medical team and continuous medical supplies to face the pandemic-threat.

“Evacuation from the Maldives will be the  largest-ever in our history, to take place in two phases,” Indian High Commissioner Sunjay Sudhir said. “After the voyage of INS Jalashwa, we expect a voyage by INS Magar, also to Kochi on May 10. We expect voyages by the same ships to Thoothukudi on 12 and 14 May,” he added. Of the 27,000 Indians residing in Maldives at present, a total of 4,500 have registered to return home. The success of the current evacuation plans might encourage more people to register to return.

The mission is a part of the Indian Navy’s ‘Operation Samudra Setu’, to contribute to the national effort of bringing back home Indians stuck overseas because of the travel restrictions imposed the world over in the face of the pandemic threat. In turn, ‘Samdura Setu’ is a part of the larger ‘Vande Bharat’ mission, in which Air India flights have been pressed into service, to bring Indians back home from faraway nations in the West and elsewhere.

In terms of the number of evacuees overall, it is larger than the 1990 evacuation of 170,000 Indians caught in ‘Gulf War I’, which was fought over the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait under then President Saddam Hussein. The Operation at this time is the largest-ever peace-time evacuation of civilians, anytime, anywhere in the world. ‘Vande Bharat’ is expected to help bring back 200,000 Indians back home.

The current Operation is expected to be larger than the earlier one, for a variety of reasons. One, of course, is the numbers. Two, unlike the earlier occasion, the evacuees are spread across various countries across the world, both developed and developing ones. This makes both logistics and coordination a tougher task, as Indian diplomats have to work closely with counterparts and other field staff in multiple capitals and airport authorities in those countries.

The earlier Operation did not include Maldives, nor was there any other occasion for such an effort. Thus, the Jalashwa mission and those that are to follow the same in the following days is the largest Indian effort viz Maldives. The number of returnees on the maiden voyage totalled 698, comprising 595 men and 103 women, 19 of them pregnant.

Even in normal times, such an effort would have proved to be a challenge for the Indian Embassy in capital Male, and also Maldivian officials who coordinated from their end. With a population of around 400,000, Maldives employees around 100,000 migrant workers, in construction industry and in white-collar environments as doctors, nurses, teachers and office assistants and managers. Many Indians, both men and women, also work as chauffer, house-maid and cook in private homes in Male and interior islands.

Wonderful support

As Amb. Sudhir explained, it was a ‘complex operation’, as Indians work in most of the 200-plus habitable islands, spread across a 900-km length in the Indian Ocean. Given that Maldives is the first country in South Asia to be hit by coronavirus, and it is also spreading, there is a lockdown in many islands and atoll capitals. There is also restrictions on movement from one island to another. This comes in the way of Indian nationals working in some interior islands reaching the nearest population-centre with an airport to reach Male.

Amb Sudhir explained that “there is a lot of medical cases, including pregnant women, where ferrying them to Male is a challenge. There are lot of senior citizens with specific medical requirements. What made it challenging was the fact that Males is under lockdown and all offices and ministries are closed.”

The Indian diplomat was full of praise for the Government of Maldives and their officials, for the “wonderful support and helping hand”. As he pointed out, all of it came about when all Government offices in the capital was shut down, owing to Covid19. Thus, it may have been the first of its kind when sea-passengers had their customs and immigration clearances undertaken on arrival at the Velana International Airport in the capital, “Alongside, berthing for the ship was provided at Male Port, which made embarkation very easy for the passengers,” The Hindu quoted the envoy as saying.

Maldivian returnees

Almost simultaneously, the two nations and their diplomats have been working to bring back 200 Maldivians who are now in India, and could not return home, owing to the pandemic-lockdown. According to the Maldivian Foreign Ministry, 200 Maldivian citizens will be repatriated from nine cities of India in the coming days.

According to the ministry, they will be evacuated on a chartered flight by the national airline Maldivian, scheduled to travel from Male' to Delhi to Trivandrum before returning to Male' again. Since the flight will only land in two cities, the Maldivian High Commission in Delhi and Maldivian Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram will aid in transporting locals from the five other cities, namely, Gurugram, Rishikesh, Vellore, Chennai and Kochi, and also States like Punjab, to the points of evacuation.

The ministry clarified that more flights will be chartered in the future to rescue and bring back more Maldivians stranded in foreign countries. Prior to this, repatriation efforts were carried out to bring back Maldivians stranded in Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the United Kingdom as well.

Unprecedented coverage

Before the Maldivian leg of ‘Operation Samurdra Setu’, the Indian armed forces have been involved in the archipelago-nation at least on two major operations. ‘Operation Cactus’ in 1988 was out and out a commando operation undertaken in cooperation with the Indian Air Force (IAF), in what was still a daring operation, landing massive transporter aircraft on an unfamiliar Male runway jutting out into the sea, and in darkness, without landing aids.

The Operation was undertaken to neutralise Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries, working for Maldivian dissidents to topple then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in the tenth of his 30-year rule. The greatness of the Indian operation then, and the overshadowing IPKF presence in neighbouring Sri Lanka, flows from their withdrawal without overstaying the limited welcome. This helped end speculation and motivated rumours that the Indian armed forces were there to stay.

This was followed by the Indian armed forces rushing to the aid of both nations and others affected by the Boxer Day tsunami in end-December 2004. More recently, viz Maldives, India undertook another unprecedented humanitarian operation when fire damaged Male city’s desalination plant, in December 2014. While IAF rushed in drinking water cans and bottles in large numbers, the Navy vessels with massive on-board desalination plants were pressed into service without loss of time.

One difference between the current Operation and the earlier ones is the wide media coverage it has got in India. ‘Operation Cactus’ may have had a parallel only in the Indian armed forces landing in Srinagar airport after Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession, post-Independence. But very little is known of it in India, other than within tri-Services academy and academics studying the nation’s geo-strategic priorities in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It is not even as a stand-alone study of Maldives, whose closest neighbour India is.

In the past, including post-tsunami rescue, rehabilitation and reconstruction work, and more so the 2014 drinking water crisis, either there was not enough of governmental initiative, or was there seeming enthusiasm in the Indian media, or both, to carry it to fellow-Indians back home. This trend should continue and should also be institutionalised as with the humanitarian operations launched by the US Marines, among other American forces, nearer home and overseas. This has changed, and for good, but the trend in the news coverage of India’s smaller neighbours has to continue, independent of their US connections in the Cold War era and China at present.

Proximity and more

All of it goes on to reiterate the proximity of the two nations, going beyond what geography and even history dictate. The mutual inter-dependence without the smaller of the two having to compromise its sovereignty and territorial integrity in any which way. This is unlike what the West earlier and China particularly so now have been insisting upon, while extending developmental aid. They tie the aid to massive purchases for the funded-projects only from their countries.

China has also gotten away by bringing in its own labour, denying hundreds of jobs to the locals in all projects they are involved in aid-recipient nations. In Maldives, the Male-Hulhule Sinimale sea-bridge airport, and post-tsunami housing projects witnessed this China-only uniqueness in project-funding. In the case of India, whether it is about development funding for projects in Maldives or elsewhere, from consultancy to construction contracts, the Government of India does not interfere.

Considering that Maldives need to import the project material from overseas, New Delhi encourages Indian firms to supply them at competitive prices. There is also a huge saving on the cost of transporting those material from India’s Thoothukudi port in southern Tamil Nadu. But the greatest attraction for aid-recipient nations, starting with Maldives but not excluding any other, is that unlike China, they actually create jobs and opportunities for the locals, and thus generate family incomes, as Indian experts are there only for overall supervision and/or coordination, nothing more.

This commentary originally appeared in South Asia Weekly.
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