India has made an elaborate plan to bring Indian nationals from about a dozen countries in the wake of novel coronavirus pandemic. As part of the mission, India has sent INS Jalashwa to the Maldives.
The Indian Navy’s amphibious warship has reached Maldives under Operation Samudra Setu. India Today’s foreign affairs editor Geeta Mohan has interviewed Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdullah Shahid in the backdrop India-Maldives cooperation in the time of Covid-19 pandemic. Here are the excerpts:
India Today: My first question would be with regards to Indian nationals who are going to be repatriated back home. When is the ship arriving and what are the logistics and arrangements in place?
Abdulla Shahid: The ship is going to arrive on the 8th of May and we are in the process of taking care of the logistics. The arrangements are being made together with the High Commission of India in the Maldives, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the immigration, customs and police departments. It is an inter-ministerial, inter-departmental exercise. This would be the first time that such large numbers of expatriates would be traveling back via a ship from the Maldives.
It is important that we recognise we contribution that has been made by the expatriate population here in the Maldives, from India and from many other countries, who have assisted us in reaching this level of development. It is a sad day that we are saying goodbye to many of them but we hope that they will come back and be part of the success story that Maldives is.
India Today: The expatriates are an important part of the Maldivian economy, but how many in terms of numbers, how many Indians are going to be on board that ship on 8th May?
Abdulla Shahid: The first batch of expatriates who would be travelling would be 700 there would be many other sorties as and when required.
India Today: Are there more Indians who would be waiting for the next batch of repatriation or evacuation?
Abdulla Shahid: There would be many who would be ready to go. As you would know, the tourism industry has come to a complete standstill and many of them are employed in the tourism sector in hospitality industry and they have no job at this time. It is most unfortunate but I think it is the time that they would like to go back to their families. And then return and when we the pandemic is behind us.
India Today: India is going to send out a lot of flights to various countries. Is the Maldives one of those countries where flight operations would take place to bring back Indian nationals? And, have any Indian nationals tested positive for Covid-19 in the Maldives?
Abdulla Shahid: A few Indian nationals have tested positive unfortunately and they have been taken care of by the institutions that are treating them. India is going to use ships to ferry the Indian expatriates. I think given the proximity of your countries geographically, this is not a bad idea.
India Today: We knew that India and the Maldives have been co-operating in this fight against Covid-19. There were a few things that the Maldives wanted including hydroxychloroquine. What is the kind of assistance that we see between the two countries? Prime Minister Modi and President Ibrahim Solih spoke some time ago, wherein the president was really thankful for the assistance. But in terms of real cooperation, what are the areas that the two countries are cooperating in terms of fighting Covid-19?
Abdulla Shahid: In terms of Covid-19, we have had cooperation on two fronts — one is the health emergency and the other one is the economic emergency. India has been kind to assist us on both fronts. India is making sure that the essential medicines are available and are not in the list that is banned for exports.
India has also assured the essential supplies of food and other requirements would be here in good time. I’ve been told that India would be sending a ship very soon with essential commodities to the Maldives and these are highly appreciative gestures of goodwill from the Indian government and the people.
On the economic front, just last week $150 million currencies swap was made between the Reserve Bank of India and the Maldives Monetary Authority. This [happened], you would recall, under the agreement [that was] signed between the two governments during President Solih’s December 2018 visit.
This is the first time, the Maldives is utilising the Currency Swap agreement and its availability is a great help for us.
India Today: How is the Maldives trying to cope with the economic crisis that it will be facing primarily because of its dependence on tourism and hospitality industry?
Abdulla Shahid: We had 2 million tourists visiting us last year and we were hopeful of an 8 per cent growth on the number this year, but we have zero growth now.
There have been no tourists arriving for the last three months also. The situation is really bad. The government’s revenue cash flow has been hit. Amongst the Asian countries, the World Bank estimates that the Maldives would be the worst hit as it is so dependent on single industry (tourism).
Our medium-term estimates show that there would be about a 900 million dollars cash flow shortage on government revenue. We are requesting our friendly countries to come to our assistance. The Maldives is proud to have graduated from being an LDC to a developing country status and that’s a major achievement for a small country like ours. It did come with a good management and also with a lot of assistance from our friends.
But if timely assistance does not come during this pandemic and afterwards we are going to slide back and be at the bottom of world business. This is not something that neither the international community nor the Maldives will be proud of.
India Today: There are two important groupings that the Maldives participated in; the SAARC summit level meeting initiated by Prime Minister Modi and the second was the NAM contact group meeting in which you represented your country. We have seen initiatives like the SAARC Covid-19 emergency fund in South Asia but in terms of the global community coming together, we still see dissonance. Fresh row has started between America and China. In such a scenario, how do you see countries such as the Maldives and other developing countries really gain out of any co-operation or a united fight against Covid-19?
Abdulla Shahid: My message to the non-aligned contact group yesterday from the office of President Solih was very clear. We believe that the social vaccine to counter the pandemic is available. We just need to use it and that is solidarity. And, we are trying to find a vaccine to deal with the virus but [for] the pandemic as such, we have the vaccine and all the countries need to start using it.
If we do not have this commitment for solidarity, for united action and to move forward in the interest of humanity, we don’t see us as the human race overcome this.
India Today: Where does the Maldives stand in terms of the questions around the origins of the virus or whether the role of the WHO needs to be questioned? Whether accountability needs to be built for why the world today is suffering such a huge outbreak?
Abdulla Shahid: Our first priority today is to make sure that the 457 people who are infected by the virus in the Maldives and growing every day [get medical care and spread of virus] is stopped. Our interest is to make sure that this virus is eliminated not only from the shores of the Maldives but also from South Asia and throughout the world.
It is not the time to start bickering about the origins. We have to deal with the virus itself first. We know for a fact that it is around and it is infecting human beings so we should start dealing with the issue right at hand. And, then once it is sorted out perhaps those who survive will have an opportunity to look into the matters that you have just outlined.
India Today: PM Modi raised the issue of fake news, doctored videos and false narrative at the NAM meeting, what’s your take on it?
Abdulla Shahid: India’s leadership in the South Asian region and throughout the world has been commendable and it’s indisputable that India has taken its leadership role very seriously. The initiative of Prime Minister Modi to bring together SAARC leaders to discuss the pandemic at a very initial stage is applauded by the people of the Maldives and within the region as well.
Under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership, opened the Covid fund and pledged $10 million and assisted not only the South Asian but also many other countries throughout the world. In every geographic region India has reached out and established its leadership role in scientific research in dealing with this virus and therefore we need to make sure that the efforts made by the good people of India are not tarnished by the things such as fake news. I can assure you that the Maldives takes India’s leadership and friendship very seriously and we commend it.
India Today: Is there a time-frame as to when all the Indian nationals who wish to return to India will be repatriated? Is there a time-frame that has been discussed between your ministry and the Indian mission?
Abdulla Shahid: The initial sortie is going to take 700 [people]. I hope that we will be able to overcome this pandemic and bring the country back to normalcy before all the Indians can return. We need the Indian professional people to be part of our economic vibrancy.
India Today: Are there any Maldivian nationals here in India who need or want to go back? Is there any assistance on that front?
Abdulla Shahid: Yes, there are a number of Maldivians who are still stranded in several parts of India. Before the pandemic began, India and the Maldives had a good air connectivity. For many Maldivians, India is a second home. They go for their medical purposes, for studies or to holiday to India.
So, a large number of Maldivians, comparatively speaking to the population, found themselves stranded in different parts of India. And, we have had three flights bring them back and we still have about four hundred people who are stranded having gone there on short-term medical purposes and other requirements. And, we are planning to bring them back as soon as possible hopefully within the next week we will organise one more flight and bring back about 150-200 people.
India Today: How successful has lockdown been in the Maldives?
Abdulla Shahid: I think that is the only successful strategy that’s proven worldwide and this is the only way to make sure that the curve flattens and we have to make sure that the curve is flattened.
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