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Transcript of Special Briefing on the Visit of President of Maldives to India (August 02, 2022)

August 02, 2022

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: A very good afternoon to all of you. Thank you for joining us today for the Special Media Briefing on the occasion of the visit of the President of Maldives, President Solih. To give us a sense of the conversation that has just taken place between the Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, and President Solih, I have the privilege here of having our High Commissioner to Maldives, Shri Munu Mahawar as well as Joint Secretary, looking after the Indian Ocean Region, Shri Kartik Pande. So, I would request Munu to start off with some opening remarks perhaps and then we'll try to take a few questions. Thank you.

Shri Munu Mahawar, High Commissioner of India to Maldives: Thank you Arindam. Good afternoon. What I'll do, I'll begin with some of the basic details, some of which might be already known to you through various statements, but I'll still go through it and then we can open the floor for question and answer. So President of Maldives, His Excellency Ibrahim Mohamed Solih arrived yesterday on an official visit at the invitation of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi. He is accompanied by key Ministers and a business delegation. Yesterday, EAM called on him. And today he had talks with Prime Minister in one on one restricted and delegation level formats. And then this was followed by a media event where you saw inauguration and review of many flagship projects. We also had exchange of agreement and then press remarks by both leaders. Prime Minister hosted a lunch for President Solih. Later in the day President Solih will meet our President Smt. Droupadi Murmu in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. He will be the first Head of State or Government to meet with the Rashtrapati Ji. This visit also has a very strong business focus, and therefore two business events are planned, one in Delhi later in the evening and then one in Mumbai. President Solih will depart for Mumbai tomorrow morning and there, he will have some engagements including meeting with the Governor of Maharashtra who will also host a lunch and then there are some other business events that are planned.

Now just to give the context of the visit, there have been a series of very high level contacts between our two countries. This is President Solih’s third visit to India. He came to India in December 2018 soon after his election and then he visited again in April 2019 to Bengaluru to witness a match, cricket match at the invitation of India. Prime Minister visited in November 2018 to attend the swearing in ceremony of President Solih and then again, a State visit in June 2019. The leaders have also had a virtual meeting. They have been in contact over telephone. So there is very close connect between the two leaders and of course we have also had a series of high level exchanges. Most recently, Dr. Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister visited Addu where some very high profile projects were inaugurated. The relationship has grown tremendously in last three and a half, four years in every area and that is possible because of the close connect between our two leaders. It's a time tested relationship, but it has really grown in last three and a half years. Cooperation during pandemic was really phenomenal. You have heard President Solih talk about it. It's really a model for the entire region. We extended every possible support to government of Maldives in terms of medical supplies, supplies of essential commodities, vaccines and even the air bubble that we created facilitated travel and that really helped the Maldivian economy, which relies heavily on tourism and which was under tremendous pressure and on their part also they extended full support for whatever assistance we required, for example, to bring back our own people. Development cooperation has really evolved as a central pillar. We are executing large projects, we are executing mid-level projects and we are executing a large number of high impact smaller projects, which benefit the people in the islands away from Male. So today, if I leave aside, even the financial assistance part, the development cooperation portfolio itself is over $2 billion. Trade has grown tremendously. In last year it grew by 31%. So despite COVID, business linkages have grown and there are many reasons we can go into details during the question and answer session, that have enabled us to really enhance our economic engagement despite the challenges of the pandemic. Security and defence remain a very key area of cooperation and we have been working very closely. As Prime Minister himself said, you know, our relationship has not only benefited our two countries, but it has been a force of factor of stability, peace and prosperity in the region itself.

So, coming to the discussions that the two leaders had, of course, President Solih is extremely appreciative of the warm hospitality that has been accorded to him. The leaders reviewed the entire spectrum, and they focused on the next steps that can be taken to keep enhancing this partnership. President Solih, reemphasized in meeting, and then in press also, the India First policy of Maldives and Prime Minister on his part reassured President Solih that Maldives occupies a very special place in India's Neighbourhood First policy. They of course reviewed our cooperation during COVID, and how even after COVID, we continue to work very closely to deal with the evolving challenges. For example, you would have seen reports about how we have been supplying essential commodities, sugar, wheat flour, to Maldives despite our own restrictions. So we have remained supportive of Maldives and fulfilled these requirements in Maldives. Pouring of first concrete of Greater Male Connectivity project is a landmark event. This essentially marks the beginning of construction of permanent structure. This project which has been financed by a $100 million grant and $400 million line of credit assistance has the potential to transform Maldives economy. You saw the progress in other projects, and while the leaders have mentioned it in their statements, let me still go through some of the outcomes, because these are very substantive outcomes of the visit and they show how we continue to provide support, and work closely with Maldives to support their efforts for their own development and growth. In this visit, we have announced another line of credit of a $100 million to ensure that the projects are not disrupted, they are implemented expeditiously. We have committed providing financing for additional 2000 social housing unit, which is really a very, very key priority for the government and people of Maldives. We have accorded approvals, completed the processes towards signing of contract for development of Hanimaadhoo airport. The DPR for Gulhifahlu project has been finalized, and this is again a very big project. They plan to relocate Male port to Gulhifalhu that will decongest Male and that will enhance the capacity of port significantly.

The exports are continuing and we have reconfirmed that it is possible for Maldives to export tuna and tuna products to India under SAFTA, without imposition of any duty and that will help enhance trade between our two countries. Many decisions were taken that will help Maldives augment the capacity of its forces, the MNDF and police. Police, of course the police academy project was inaugurated during Dr. Jaishankar’s visit. Today, we saw signing of a contract for construction of 61 facilities in Maldives; police stations, residential units, and I think detention center is also a part of it. We have committed to provide defence platforms. We have been providing defence platforms in the past and we have committed to provide more, and replace the aging one with a newer one. Utility vehicles will also be provided to Maldivian defence force. And then the leaders had a discussion on regional and international issues. We have been working very closely on regional and international issues in various fora. You would have seen how Maldives successfully hosted the meeting of Colombo Security Conclave, where our NSA participated. And in that meeting we decided to expand the membership of Colombo Security Conclave, Mauritius joined as a member and then a new pillar of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief was added. So all in all, very substantive outcomes have been achieved in this visit and of course we will be issuing a joint statement and an outcome document, which will give you more details. So let me conclude by saying that the visit of President Solih and its outcomes are a strong reaffirmation of our Neighbourhood First Policy and the key position that we accord to Maldives in it. It reflects our shared commitment to development and democracy, and to a partnership that delivers, which was a tagline for one of the projects also. And we are confident that the visit will take forward our multifaceted cooperation in all these areas and further consolidate our partnership. So I would stop here.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you very much Munu for that overview and the sense of what the conversation was. We'll take a few questions, please introduce yourself and the organization that you come from. I already see the hands. Yeshi we will start with you.

Yeshi: This is Yeshi Seli from The New Indian Express. You've just mentioned that there is 31% increase of trade, I'd like to know from what period to what period between India and Maldives. And secondly, PM Modi has announced a $100 million LoC. In addition to that, what is the total financial support that we've given to Maldives until now.

Nayanima: I’m Nayanima from The Print. So just wanted to understand as an extremely close and friendly neighbour of Maldives, was there any discussion on the infighting that is going on within the ruling party there and also the kind of slogans that are going on with the opposition on anti-India slogans. I'm sure these are very serious concerns that might have come up in the discussions today.

Sidhant: Sir, Sidhant from WION. My question is on the yoga related violence. Was there any discussion over a sentiment that's emerging against Yoga, including the fact that the Adhaalath party, which is the coalition members, coming out with a research document insisting the President should make sure that this is not practiced in Maldives.

Shri Munu Mahawar, High Commissioner of India to Maldives: So, first on trade. I think the figure is 31%, if I remember correctly, 31% increase last year, vis a vis the previous year. So, 2021 saw 31% increase in our trade vis a vis 2020. And there are many reasons why this has happened. Of course, the COVID situation eased a little bit. We have introduced, implemented visa free travel between our two countries. There is a direct shipping service that is operational, and we are implementing several projects in which Indian content is also required. So all these factors have contributed and then air connectivity has increased tremendously. So these factors have contributed to growth in bilateral trade.

Yeshi: Can you quantify the trade?

Shri Munu Mahawar, High Commissioner of India to Maldives: Trade I think, last year it was about $330 million, that was the quantum, and this year I don't have the exact numbers with me but, my understanding is that it is again witnessing a further growth. So the trend is very positive in terms of our trade.

Kartik Pande, Joint Secretary: Today's announcement on the export of tuna from Maldives will add towards their exports also. So, that was one of their requests, which again has been agreed.

Shri Munu Mahawar, High Commissioner of India to Maldives: And in terms of total financial support you would recall when President Solih came to India in 2018, there was a package of $1.4 billion, it was $800 million of line of credit, $200 million of budgetary support and $400 million of currency swap. After that we have extended more assistance in terms of grant projects, in terms of more lines of credit, we have given special line of credit for defence, we have given special line of credit for sports, we have implemented a large number of high impact community development projects, and we have now announced today an additional line of credit. Besides that we also financed project through EXIM India's Buyers Credit scheme. So the housing projects are being executed under that scheme and the police infrastructure project that was signed today will also be executed under that scheme. I forgot all about the biggest project, the greater Male connectivity project, which is $500 million, $400 million of line of credit and a $100 million of grant. So, if we put all this together, then the figure would reach somewhere around $2.8 billion, but what I was trying to do was to remove the financial assistance part and that would be roughly in the range of $600 to $800 million currency swap, budgetary support. So, all in all, we remain committed to continue working closely with Maldives and extend full support and you heard Prime Minister himself saying that.

In terms of the question about infighting, slogans. Well, I said, all the visit and the discussions focused on bilateral, regional and international issues. President Solih has reaffirmed India First policy of Maldives and Prime Minister has reaffirmed that Maldives occupies a very special place in our Neighbourhood First policy. President Solih has also assured and you heard him also during his press remark that there is a strong desire in Maldives to strengthen relationship with India. The people of Maldives appreciate this partnership. They recognize how India has always stood by Maldives in their hours of need and there is a genuine desire to further strengthen our relationship. These campaigns, which are being run, they are based on misinformation, false propaganda, and they do not reflect the views of the people of Maldives. And I would say on yoga specifically, look, yoga as an event, Internationally Day of Yoga is celebrated all over the world. In Maldives also International Day of Yoga has been celebrated every year since 2015, and Maldives had co-sponsored the resolution that recognized this day. And you know this incident happened, it was an event jointly organized by High Commission with Government of Maldives and UN Maldives and the government and political parties, many political parties have condemned what happened, and the Government of Maldives has taken action and they have committed at the highest level that those responsible will be brought before the law.

Akhilesh Suman: Sir, I’m Akhilesh Suman from Sansad TV. You know that Sri Lanka has gone through very difficult time and do you think, and did you talk about any follow up feedback from Maldives that Sri Lanka has faced and what was your, you know, appreciation of the economic situation of Maldives?

Poonam Dabas: I’m Poonam Dabas, formerly with DD News with the National Broadcaster. Now I run a think tank Center for Media and Strategic Studies. And ecology is one area of concern. So my question is on ecology and I just want to understand, was that a subject of concern between the two leaders? If yes, my particular interest would be water, you know, fresh drinking water, the displacement of refugees, and is there an ongoing project or cooperation between the two countries.

Maha Siddiqui: Sir, I’m Maha Siddiqui from NDTV. Sir in the context of Sri Lanka and Maldives, was there any reference to the debt traps that are created and part of which was also responsible for what's happening in Sri Lanka.

Shri Munu Mahawar, Higher Commissioner of India to Maldives: So on the question of economic situation in Maldives well, it's really not for me to pronounce on that. Government of Maldives has issued many statements on this and I would urge you to refer to those statements. As far as we are concerned we have been working very closely with Maldives to deal with not only healthcare, but economic challenges first of COVID and then now evolving situation. So we have worked very closely with Maldives and we will continue to work very closely with Maldives. And you heard Prime Minister say this that India has been a first responder in Maldives and India will remain a first responder in Maldives. So, I would leave it at that, I would not go into further details.

On ecology, I am glad you have raised this because this is really one of the focus areas of our cooperation and we are doing a lot in this field. It did figure in discussions, you know, for Maldives and for India, climate change and its impact is a major priority and we have been working very closely together. Maldives is a part of International Solar Alliance. It is a part of the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure and we are seeing how we can enhance our cooperation in the area of renewable energy. Specifically, on water and sanitation, you would've seen the leaders actually reviewed the progress in the implementation of drinking water and sewerage project on 34 islands, which we are supporting and that is the largest climate adaptation program that has been undertaken in Maldives and that's happening with the support from India. So, this is definitely a priority area and we are working very closely with them. And we also do some of these smaller projects of this nature under our grant, you know, high impact community development project. In fact, all these programs are tailored to the requirement of people of Maldives and they are implemented in close consultation and sometimes directly through the local bodies and that's another area, you know, we are trying to strengthen our cooperation. Today we have signed an MOU, which will allow us to work with Maldives, organize training program, capacity building measures for the local government representatives and they require support in many areas. So this will remain a priority area for our cooperation.

Poonam Dabas: Climate refugees?

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: And I think as you mentioned, there is a lot of work going on climate change. I don't know if this is the right opportunity to discuss what are the implications of climate change on Maldives? I'm not sure that we are the right persons, but if you have an additional question, I will come back to that.

Madhurendra: Sir Madhurendra, main News Nation se, mera sawal defence sector ko lekar hai ki donon desho ke beech defence sector mein kya batchit hui. Maldives ko aane vale dinon mein aur kya hum arms ya ammunitions ya weapons dene waale hai? (Questioned in Hindi; Approximate Translation) Sir I am Madhurendra from News Nation, my question is about the defence sector. What was the conversation between the two countries on defence sector? What arms or weapons or ammunitions are we going to provide to Maldives?

Abhishek Jha: Sir, this is Abhishek Jha from CNN News-18. My question is regarding that Naval boat that India has committed to Maldives. So is it in addition to the earlier provided boat? And could you please give us some specification about this boat like is it some transport boat or surveillance boat or what kind of boat is this?

Sandhya: Sir Sandhya from ET. Just the Ex-Maldivian President Mr. Nasheed talked about that 70% of Maldives’ current debt is owned by China. Was China on the table for discussions? Thanks.

Shri Munu Mahawar, High Commissioner of India to Maldives: On defence, I think in a way two questions are interlinked. Raksha ke kshetr mein hamara bahut aapasi sahayog hai aur hamare sahyog ka mukhya uddeshya hai ki jo hamare kshetra mein chunautiyan hai, suraksha sambandhi chunautiyan hai usaka hum kiss tarah se milkar muqabla karen. Jo chunautiyan hamare kshetra mein hai woh akele nahi ladi jaa sakti, usaka mukabala akele nahi kiya ja sakta. Iske lie avashyak hai ki kshetra ke sabhi log, sabhi desh milkar iska mukabla karein. Toh, yeh ek hamara pramukh uddeshya hai. Iss ke alava hum raksha ke kshetra mein suraksha ke kshetra mein yeh prayas karte hain ki Maldives ki kshamata, unki sainya forces ki kshamata, MNDF Police Force ki kshamata badh sake jisase vah apane kshetra mein suraksha kayam kar sakein. To vahi hamara mukhya uddeshya hai hamara jitne bhi chejein hum kar rahe hai, chahe vah hum platform dete hai, chahe hum unko training dete hai, chahe hum unka infrastructure develop karte hai ya ham unki training facilities banate hai. Mukhya uddeshya yahi hai ki hum Maldives ke jo khud ke prayas hai apni suraksha kshamata badhane ke uss ko sahara de sakein, uss ki madad kar sakein. (Answered in Hindi; Approximate Translation) We have a lot of mutual cooperation in the field of defence and the main objective of our cooperation is how to combat together the challenges that exist in our region, the security challenges. The challenges that exist in our region cannot be fought alone, they cannot be tackled alone. For this, it is necessary that all the people of the region, all the countries, fight it together. So, this is one of our main objectives. In addition, we strive in the field of security, in the field of defence to enhance the capability of the Maldives, the capability of their military forces, the capacity of the MNDF Police Force so that they can maintain security in their region. So that is our main objective concerning whatever we are doing - whether we give them a platform, whether we give them training, whether we develop their infrastructure or build their training facilities. The main objective is to support the efforts of the Maldives to increase their security capabilities.

I think as far as this question about Chinese debt, I have already addressed, you know, it's really not for me to comment on the state of Maldivian economy. There have been statements, detailed statements issued by government of Maldives. The leaders did discuss bilateral, regional and international issues and they did discuss security challenges in the region, they did discuss how to enhance security in the region, including maritime security, how to counter transnational threats through collaboration. So these topics did figure in the discussion.

The additional boat, see, we have supplied three boats to Maldives in the past, and I would urge Kartik to correct me if I go factually wrong. We can give you specific details even after the briefing. This particular boat, which we seek to replace was supplied in 2006, it is nearing its lifespan. So the idea is to replace this boat with a boat that will have longer life, that will have better capabilities and in addition, we've decided to provide another LCA, Landing Craft Assault, which again, will help them enhance their own capability to ensure security in their region, in their waters. So this is an ongoing process. We will continue to work together with them to support their efforts, to enhance their own ability to ensure security in region.

Sudhi Ranjan: Sir Sudhi Ranjan from Bloomberg. Anything you could tell us on the cooperation, defence cooperation in particular, the radar chains that we are trying to build and the cooperation with e-visa.

Devirupa: I just want to ask another additional question on the defence cooperation. India and Maldives has signed an agreement for development and maintenance of Coast Guard Harbour at Uthuru Thilafalhu. I just want to know what's the implementation status of the agreement?

Shri Munu Mahawar, High Commissioner of India to Maldives: So, as far as this radar chain, you mentioned, it basically relates to our cooperation in the area of maritime domain awareness and these radars were set up and they were formally, I mean, in fact, the first phase was handed over at the leader level when Prime Minister visited Maldives and then we have since set up more radars there and the whole system is now complete and it was formally handed over during the visit of External Affairs Minister to Addu in March 2022. And we also have signed an agreement on exchange of white shipping information and that is also happening. So, we have close cooperation in the area of maritime domain awareness. On UTF, as you're aware, this project essentially envisages development of a Harbour for the Maldivian Coast Guard, its agreement was signed, now the project is under implementation, as and when we have something new to share with you, I'm sure we'll share with you.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thanks. Thank you Munu for taking so many questions on this. Thanks also to Kartik Pande, the Joint Secretary (IOR) for joining us and for sharing his perspectives. Thank you all for joining us with this special media briefing. Good day.

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