For a third time in four decades or less, Fate ordained that India display the kind of closeness of heart with Maldives as geography too has made them to be. Responding to the Maldivian SOS without much ado or formality, as on the previous occasions, India continues to despatch drinking water, and also operate ship-based desalination plants for meeting the drinking water needs of the national capital of Male after fire in the existing plant caused a mid-night shut-down on Thursday.
With 120,000 residents, accounting for a third of the nation’s population, and tourists, whose needs all have to be met, Male’s daily requirement of drinking water is put at a substantial 14,500 tonnes. The Indian despatches through huge Air Force transporters – the largest in the world – and naval vessels within hours of the crisis may not be enough, but it sent out a clear signal that help was on its way.
More importantly, unsure water-supplies might have also contributed to the easing of public tension and possible unrest, protests and violence, which could have also been a consequence if the populace were not assured that drinking water was after all on its way. Needless to point out, the Government of President Abdulla Yameen – or, any other in its place – would have been hard-pressed to handle a public protest alongside the water-crisis, the administrators relying heavily on the small-staffed Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) and the Maldivian Police Service (MPS) to address all crises.
After India, China and the US have also chipped in water-supplies, both through air and sea. In between, neighbouring Sri Lanka also air-lifted drinking water bottles to Male, to meet immediate needs. According to the Task Force, named by President Yameen and headed by Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, it won’t be feasible to fix the problem within any ‘politically desirable’ period. Tentatively, the Task Force has fixed it at around three weeks.
The Task Force has fixed the cost of repairs to the existing desalination plant at $ 20 m. China has since committed $ 5 million, while an un-named Saudi philanthropist has promised $ 1 million. President Yameen has indicated that they would need to re-look at the issues flagged by the current crisis and set up additional desalination plants, without relying on a single source of single water, both for Male and the rest of the country.
Indian High Commissioner Rajeev Sahare has said that India would extend all technical expertise to resolve the current crisis. According to the local media, the Maldivian Government had not approached India for financial assistance – at least, as yet. As Sahare indicated, India pressed the button once Maldivian Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon called counterpart Sushma Swaraj soon after the seriousness of the crisis was known. Swaraj was the first Indian leader to visit Maldives after the Narendra Modi Government came to power in May. Sahare has since been quoted as saying that Prime Minister Modi had then instructed that all help should be extended to Maldives in the matter.
Prior to the current crisis, the Indian hand of friendship was on display first at the time of the failed coup against then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (1988) and later when the ‘Asian tsunami’ struck Maldives and Sri Lanka, along with the coastline of the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu (2004). On both occasions, India did rush help without any let-up or second-thoughts. The ‘Operation Cactus’, launched by the Indian armed forces without much ground information and support, was a huge success. Likewise, their post-tsunami help came within hours after the crisis struck. Once again, India has shown that when it comes to smaller neighbours and their populations, the Indian brain is where their heart is.
However, the current crisis has come at a time when India-Maldives relations have suffered a certain strain after the latter began being seen as moving closer to China, to the increasing discomfort of the Indian neighbour. But the crisis has shown once again that geographical proximity does matter after all, and both India and more so Maldives need to acknowledge that they can choose only their friends at best – and not neighbours.
Independent of the drinking water crisis, successive Governments in India over the past year have been discussing help for Maldives in off-shore oil exploration. President Yameen and Prime Minister Modi had committed to taking the proposal forward when they met on the sidelines of the recent Kathmandu SAARC Summit.
Considering that oil-exploration/extraction may have a desalination component added to it, both nations could consider combining both, for quenching the thirst of Male and/or closer to whichever part of Maldivian seas where oil could be found. If the current crisis has proved that drinking water too is a ‘strategic resource’ for an archipelago-nation like Maldives, just as oil supplies for the nation’s power-generating units. The oil exploration efforts, if they were to commence early on and prove fruitful, it could go a long way, even otherwise, too.
In the immediate context inside India, once again the local media has displayed a sense of insensitivity and lack of importance that smaller neighbours, particularly in the South deserve. With terror-attacks in poll-time Jammu and Kashmir, the national media was/is focussed near-exclusively on Pakistan. Even the initiatives of the Indian Government, Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj went mostly unreported in the television media, which had time for Maldives, only during the 2012 political crisis, and later during the ‘GMR row’.
With the water crisis soaring public mood for a while until help became forthcoming, Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader Mohammed Nasheed lost no time in calling upon the Government to come up with a thorough investigation, and also take the people into confidence on the course and findings of such investigations. The Government, which had already directed the police to launch an investigation on the cause of the fire-mishap, is yet to come up with details.
The MDP also criticised the Government’s efforts even as the UN Office in Male commended ‘crisis management’. Promptly, the ruling PPM joined issue with the MDP, and criticised it in turn. Task Force leader, Defence Minister Nazim who is a former officer of the MDF, also urged parties not to ‘politicise’ the new fund floated to meet the restoration expenses, saying it was not aimed at attracting funds for meeting other expenses of the Government.
Independent of it all, the Male population – who also have concerned relatives and family-branches spread out all across the islands — seems to be more in need of drinking water just now than any police investigation reports, or politicking over it. To the extent the MDP council, meeting at the height of the water crisis and without immediate reference to the same, asked President Yameen to hand over power to one-time poll-ally and Jumhooree Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim, the public mood was mute and unresponsive.
The JP itself said that it was not the time for politicking. It’s another matter that the MDP proposal did not spell out the justification for demanding President Yameen’s exit. Nor did the party outline the constitutional methodology under which such a change-over could be effected, they having suffered the fate of then Vice-President Mohammed Waheed stepping in, under the existing scheme, after President Nasheed had quit office in February 2012. The ruling PPM has since condemned the MDP for suggesting such a course.
Abdulla Maseeh, a nominee of President Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), is at present the Speaker of Parliament. The 2008 Constitution provides for the Speaker to hold the high office for two months, if the top two posts were to fall vacant, only to conduct fresh polls to the presidency, if it came to that. It’s unclear if by naming JP’s Gasim instead for the nation’s top job, the MDP was indicating support for him to replace the Speaker and proceed from there — if they could muster the required two-thirds’ support for impeaching both President Yameen and Vice-President, Dr Mohammed Jameel Ahmed, in the first place. There cannot be a vacancy to both positions, otherwise, in the normal course.
Yet, the current crisis has ‘exposed’ the nation’s leadership on a lesser count. Both President Yameen and Vice-President Jameel were not in the country when the crisis stuck. In an Executive Presidency scheme, that is saying a lot. It was more so, as from day one, President Yameen, possibly learning from his predecessors’ experiences and experimentation, allocated specific tasks and ministries under his care.
It’s another matter that in the absence of the President and the Vice-President, their ministerial colleagues seemed to have risen to the occasion, until Vice-President Jameel and President Yameen returned home one after the other, to take charge. It’s thus that the UN too found it proper to commend the crisis management task, under Minister Nazim.
Otherwise, among the three Presidents thus far under the 2008 Constitution, only President Waheed (2012-13) seemed to have formally handed over charge to Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Deen when he travelled overseas. If President Yameen has done so, it has remained unpublicised. Though the Constitution provided for the President going on formal ‘leave’, President Nasheed still managed the affairs of the State and Government, contributing to the souring of relations with his chosen Vice-President, Waheed.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)