The decision taken to implement the Visa Facilitation Agreement, signed during the visit of Maldives President Mr. Ibrahim Mohammed Solih’s visit to India in December 2018 provides a positive momentum to bilateral relations between India and Maldives. During the Maldivian President visit, India announced US$ 1.4 billion assistance to the island-nation and both the countries signed four MoUs pertaining to visa facilitation, cultural cooperation, ecosystem for agri-business, information and communication technology and electronics.
India-Maldives Visa Facilitation Agreement will enter into force from 11 March 2019. In this regard, both the governments have finalised all necessary legal formalities and exchanged diplomatic notes this week. The implementation of this agreement will facilitate travel for Maldivians to India for tourism, education, medical and business purposes and also for Indians to travel to Maldives for business purposes. The agreement implementation will further boost people to people contacts. In 2018 alone, nearly 91, 000 tourists from India visited Maldives and there is a lot of scope to increase the numbers to benefit the Maldivian economy which is dependent on tourism. In 2018, China topped tourist arrivals in Male, followed by European countries such as UK, Germany and Italy.
The implementation of the visa facilitation agreement will touch the lives of common people, particularly Indians working in Maldives in sectors such as health, education and tourism. During former President Abdullah Yameen’s regime there were reports of delay in granting visa to Indian workers. That had prompted the Kerala Chief Minister to write a letter to the Foreign Minister of India, as majority of Indians, working in Maldives are from the state of Kerala. Therefore, the agreement’s timely implementation is important to gain the confidence of common people of both sides with regard to India–Maldives relations, which had experienced strain in recent years.
Indian business in Maldives is mainly carried out by State Bank of India (SBI), the Tata group and the Taj group. Ease of restriction in visa for Indians for business purposes can provide impetus to medium enterprises in India to look for opportunities in Maldives particularly in tourism, IT and the construction industry sectors of that country.
The political environment in Maldives seems to be positive for investments by Indian companies. The ousting of the Indian company GMR from Maldives airport project led to scepticism about Indian projects being used for political purposes. To quell the fear among Indian business community, the President of Maldives had met the Indian business community representatives during his visit to New Delhi last December.
India’s keen interest in engaging with Maldives is also evident from the fact that there is a huge jump in the aid allocation to Maldives. In India’s 2019-20 budget, the allocation to Male has been substantially hiked; when compared with other South Asian countries. The Indian aid to Maldives has been increased from Rs. 125 crore in 2018-19 to Rs. 575 crore. The aid boost would cement the bilateral relationship and may help in addressing India’s concerns on the security of Indian Ocean, given China’s inroads into Sri Lanka and Maldives. India is assisting Maldives in setting up Coastal Surveillance Radar System to protect Maldivian Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) from trafficking, piracy and other threats.
The developments after the Maldives presidential elections are positive. Both India and Maldives are keen to enhance their bilateral relationship. At the same time, political efforts are needed to increase people to people contacts to cement this relationship. In this context, the Visa Facilitation Agreement will help to a great extent. The forthcoming parliamentary elections in Maldives in April 2019 and its results will also determine the future of the relationship, as the parliament of Maldives will play an important role in implementing the agreements agreed upon between the two countries.
Dr. M. Samatha, Strategic Analyst On Indian Ocean Region