Maldives: Homework needed to make India ferry service successful

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By N. Sathiya Moorthy

With the Government of India formally clearing the Kochi-Kulhuddhufushi-Male ferry service earlier this month, the question remains how much of patronage will it have, when it hit the waters – or, would it run aground, instead. There are twin concerns – of public response and security.

The former arises because of the failure of the much-trumpeted revival of the Thoothukudy-Colombo India-Sri Lanka shipping service, post-LTTE. The latter flows from the increasing regional concerns about maritime terrorism and attendant mechanisms that need to be put in place, especially now after the ‘Easter Sunday serial-blasts’ in Sri Lanka.

According to a statement by the Government of India’s Press Information Burreau (PIB), the Union Cabinet has since approved the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second Male visit, on June 8. As the PIB release pointed out, the MoU was signed ‘with a view to harness the potential opportunity that lies in passenger and cargo transportation by sea between the two countries’. It is also expected to boost the ‘untapped tourism potential’ of the northern Haa Dhaalu Atoll, where Kulhuddhufushi is the main destination now, Maldivian web newspaper, The Edition said, quoting the PIB press release.

‘The current means of travel between Maldives and India are flights, which are an expensive option. This ferry service would also enable Maldivians cheaper access to the country,’ The Edition said further. While it is true that flights are an expensive proposition, already private ferry services connect Thoothukudy and Male, but only for cargo-handling, especially of essentials like food and medicine, stationery and other items of daily use in Maldives.

Sri Lanka experience

First mooted by Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih’s party boss Mohammed Nasheed when in office (2008-12) with infectious enthusiasm, there was nothing to show the anticipated traction with prospective users, either trade or passengers. There were also inherent security concerns on both sides, though not all of them found adequate expression at a time.

On the passenger front, emergency medical and student-travellers to India would want speed, and diversion from Thoothukudy to make it both profitable for private operators. Tourism promotion is another area, but Indian beaches have nothing much to offer high-end travellers from Maldives – and even more for the latter’s high-spending European tourists, at present.

The GenX Indians, including honeymooners, are mostly long-weekend, budget travellers. Their itinerary can include a cruise-leg, as in South-East Asia packages, with relatively low-cost bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Maldivian resort-promoters and their European regulars are high-enders. The post-tsunami Maldivian experience with high-volume, low-spending Chinese tourists was/is nothing much to go by, in terms of earnings and governmental revenues.

On the cargo-ferrying front, there was near-nil response when the Indian side promoted the revival of the Thoothukudy-Colombo shipping service at the end of the LTTE-Sea Tigers. UPA-2 Shipping Minister G. K. Vasan’s Tamil Nadu background was a motivating factor, but soon it became clear no contemporary studies might have been done before the re-launch after decades.

The private operator identified by the Indian Government bowed out in double quick-time after it became clear that the 21st century passenger-essentials traders did not want to move away from higher-cost airline travel, especially for the time saved. Given the experience, the planned revival of the much-celebrated, British era ‘Boat Mail’ on the half-rail-half-ferry on the British era Chennai-Dhanushkodi/Rameswaram-Thalaimannar-Colombo route has not been mentioned since. This was despite the Indian restoration of the last-leg, Thalaimannar-Jaffna rail-link, which was blown up by the LTTE.

Security concerns

There are also increasing security concerns in both countries, over the past several years, centred on indigenous Islamic orthodoxy. Such orthodoxy, confined either to the individual or a clannish community, has since taken fundamentalist hues first, and then ‘international extremist/militant’ flavour, with targeted and/or ‘catastrophic’ terrorism as a tool.

The LTTE-Sea Tigers about a decade ago meant quieter waters in these parts. But the ‘Easter Sunday serial-blasts’ in neighbouring Sri Lanka have only revived apprehensions in Maldives, too. Of course, the blasts were not centred on the shared, tri-nation seas. But the tri-nation security concerns are now centred as much on the shared seas as much on their respective land territories, calling for unprecedented cooperation among the three nations and their security agencies.

In Male earlier this month, the deputy chief of Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), Abduh Raheem Abduh Latheef, addressing a news conference in Male earlier this month said, “refused to rule out the possibility of a terrorist attack in Maldives… The threat to the Maldives has increased since the Sri Lankan attacks. No country, at this time, can completely rule out the possibility of a terrorist attack, including Maldives.”

According to the Maldives Independent, MNDF boss, Maj-Gen Abdulla Shamal, at the same news conference, said that they were “doing everything in our capacity to prevent a terrorist attack in the Maldives. In the meantime, we are also [planning] how to react to such an attack”. Shamal and top aides have since undertaken a four-day visit to India, for further discussion on continued, all-round security cooperation between the two countries, including military exercises.

In Delhi, the Maldivian delegation called on Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal B S Dhona, the current chair of the Chiefs of Staff (CoS) Committee. They also visited Coimbatore, Wellington and Thiruvananthapuram, where they held extensive discussions on bilateral security cooperation and exercises.

NSA-level meeting

It is in the context of maritime terrorist possibilities that the forgotten proposal of President Nasheed, now Maldives Parliament Speaker, needs to be viewed/reviewed. Nasheed had proposed the joint development of Indian islets in the shared seas for resort tourism. It did not meet with much response, as Maldivian investors had their eyes on other uninhabited islets in their country, without the infamous Indian red-tape to bother with.

More importantly, the Maldivian proposal at the time would have required greater security clearances than already. It is even more, post-blasts in Sri Lanka. From the Indian angle and security perception for the region, there are enough and more reasons and justification for such concerns. Thankfully, they are also shared in the two neighbouring capitals, their security agencies and analysts.

The Indian security concerns have only increased post-26/11 ‘Mumbai serial blasts’ in 2008 and now the ‘Colombo blasts’, April 2019. The ‘Mumbai blasts’ was a typical case of ‘maritime terrorism’ and involved Pakistani ISI. The alleged links of Colombo blasts’ perpetrators to like-minded groups in India, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala, is an additional concern, not that Maldives has been sleeping in peace, since.

Simultaneously, there is now sudden enthusiasm for reviving trilateral NSA-level meetings, involving the National Security Advisors of the two countries, alongside Sri Lanka. Initiated under the Nasheed Government’s proposal, the NSA meetings were discontinued, especially after regime-changes in Maldives (2013) and Sri Lanka (2015). While there is thus a need to de-politicise security consultations at the highest levels between the three Indian Ocean neighbours, the post-Easter blasts concerns are even more real.

All of it does not necessarily mean that the India-Maldives ferry service is doomed failure even before the real-start. It only means that the two governments have to take a realistic, closer look at the commercial aspects, and also address security concerns, real and otherwise, before going on stream.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)