Time Tested Friendship: India-Maldives Relations Amid COVID-19

India and Maldives share a maritime border and have a long history of co-operation and friendship. The Maldives is situated in the south-west of India in the Indian ocean. Its neighbouring countries are Sri Lanka, India through Lakshadweep and Pakistan. There are also US military bases which are very close to Maldives and Africa, Arabian peninsula.

The Maldives is an archipelago nation which consists of 1192 islands among which 200 are inhibited. Other islands are used for either tourism or agriculture. It is the smallest south Asian country in both land area and population, Average ground elevation of 1.5 meters above the sea level makes it the lowest country on earth. The strategic location of Maldives makes it desirable as well as vulnerable. The Maldives is situated between the two important sea lanes of communication – Suez Canal and Strait of Malacca; and also a lot of sea routes merge here like the Strait of Hormuz, Luzon Strait, Korean Strait and Tsugaru Strait. Hence, countries desire to establish naval bases in this region.

India-Maldives Relations
Image source: HCIMaldives

Maldives Dependency on India

Being an island country the Maldives is dependent on its neighbours including India and Sri Lanka.   Besides education and medical supplies, Maldives depends on India for the regular supply of daily essentials including, food items and pharmaceutical supplies. Hence, the government of India ensures that any export ban on food and other essential supplies that are in short supply for local consumers does not affect supplies for the Maldives.

Bilateral ties between both the countries strengthened when in 1987 India sent its troops to aid the Maldivian government.  This was after a group of Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries sought to overthrow the legitimate Government of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. In a military operation code-named “Operation Cactus“, Indian forces defeated the coup attempt and achieved full control of the country within hours.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Likewise, Maldives was severely impacted by this pandemic. The first case of COVID-19 in the island country was confirmed on March 7, 2020. As there are limited resources and healthcare facilities in the Maldives, the government declared a public health emergency on March 12, 2020, for 30 days. Later it was extended till April 30, 2020. The government has also imposed travel restrictions to countries including China, Iran, South Korea, Italy and France. However, until now, the measures taken by the government have been effectual in containing the spread of the pandemic. As per the data by WHO (on May 18, 2020) the total number of cases are 1078, four deaths and 40 patients have recovered. Worldwide Coronavirus cases (on May 18, 2020) reported is 4,589,526, death 310,391, and patients recovered 1,872,020.

COVID-19 Pandemic and Cooperation Between India and Maldives

During this tough time, India demonstrated the policy of “neighbourhood first” policy by sending medical and food supplies in the Indian Ocean region. As per the press release by Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) India, Indian Naval Ship ‘Kesari’ departed on May 10, 2020, for Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Comoros, carrying on board two Medical Assistance Teams, consignments of COVID related essential medicines and essential food items. As a response to the request of these countries for assistance in dealing with COVID 19 pandemic. This deployment, Mission Sagar reflects India’s role as the first responder in the Indian Ocean region and help these countries in their fight against COVID-19. 

As part of Mission Sagar, India has sent Indian Naval Ship Kesari to the Maldives with around 600 tons of food provisions amid the coronavirus crisis. A team of medical staff was also sent to the Maldives to augment the preparedness of the Maldivian Government to fight the pandemic. India and Maldives are close maritime neighbours with strong and cordial defence and diplomatic ties. Continuing the tradition the government of India has offered its help to the Maldives during this COVID-19 pandemic period. The operation was executed in close collaboration with the Ministries of Defence and External Affairs and other Indian Government agencies. As per the press release by MEA, the operation is in accord with the Prime Minister Modi’s vision of security and growth for all in the SAGAR region. This effort by India is sure to boost the existing bond with her neighbours, especially with the Maldives.

On May 12, 2020, Indian Naval Ship Kesari, reached Male port in the Maldives, carrying food and medical supply. After the Maldives, the ship is also scheduled to deliver consignments related to COVID-19 to Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros, and Seychelles. In the meantime, rescue operations are carried out by the Indian Navy ship (INS) Jalashwa in two phases and have evacuated Indian nationals stranded in the island nation due to COVID-19. On May 12, 2020, in phase one of operation Samudra Setu, INS Jalashwa had successfully evacuated 698 Indian citizens from Male to Kochi. In the second phase, the vessel is expected to reach Kochi on May 17 from Male carrying 588 Indian citizens.

Conclusion

In 2004 when the Tsunami hit the South Asian nations, India suffered a heavy loss in the east coast especially in the southern part of the country. Despite the damage caused to India by the Tsunami, it assisted the Maldives with relief packages. Maldives’ basic economic activity in resort tourism faced a huge loss. In December 2014, India rushed a large quantity of drinking water to the Maldives, when the desalination plants of Male got burnt. Despite such cooperation, signs of strains began to show in the bilateral relations, when the then-president Abdulla Yameen displayed closeness with China. However, the ties between both the countries strengthened by several bilateral visits by leaders of both the nations. Nonetheless, in the present pandemic situation, close cooperation can be seen between both nations to fight against COVID-19 pandemic.   

Image source: HCIMaldives

According to the Project Information Document issued by The World Bank, making personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies available, enhancing testing capacity, enhancing intensive care capabilities and human resources capacity are the most vital needs for battling COVID-19 in the Maldives. However, it is seeking assistance at bilateral and multilateral levels to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies, support hospitals to maintain essential services, strengthen intensive care and diagnostic facilities, and to train medical staff to handle the corona virus-infected cases. The World Bank has approved aid package of $7.3 million to fortify the preparedness of the country. Additionally, $10 million has been assigned as contingency financing under the Disaster Risk Management Development Policy Financing with a Catastrophe Deferred Drawdown Option (CAT DDO) signed with the Maldives.

At the bilateral level, India has been continually sending aid to the island nation. India has sent 6.2 tonnes of medicines and also provided 5.5 tonnes of essential medicines as grant aid, apart from sending a team of medical experts. India also assisted the Maldives in evacuating its citizens from Wuhan. The Government of Maldives has been quite proactive in fighting the challenges posed by COVID-19. With the help from countries like India, Maldives is well-positioned and capable to deal with COVID-19 challenge.

India has demonstrated the nation’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and commitment by assisting food and medical supplies to other SAARC member nations including the Maldives. With all the civilian airlines barred, India has taken an exceptional step by sending food items and medical supplies to the Maldives. Therefore, it can be said that the time tested friendship between India and Maldives continues to become stronger with time. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Nomita Toppo

Nomita Toppo is a Faculty of Political Science at School of Open Learning, University of Delhi, New Delhi

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