A short-story collection by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald titled Bits of Paradise came to mind as I took a sea plane from Male to the island resort of Soneva Fushi in western Maldives. Below us, flung generously across the iridescent blue of the Indian Ocean lay several verdant isles, a handful of 1,200 such pearls that make up this close neighbour, each ringed by a penumbra of clear sea-green water. At the resort, the idea of paradise is reinforced: silvery beaches, humming vegetation, waters teeming with parrot fish, and dolphins putting on a show for gaping visitors.
But paradise can also be a troubled place. Maldives, spread over 90,000sq.km, is one of the world’s most widely dispersed countries; it is 99 per cent water, with a land area of only 300sq.km. With average ground levels only a metre-and-a-half above sea level, climate change is an existential threat. At current levels of global warming, Maldives could be uninhabitable by the end of the century; former president Mohamed Nasheed famously held a cabinet meeting underwater to draw attention to the threat. The damage inflicted by the 2004 tsunami, totalling $400 million, was a glimpse of the future.
A fractious domestic polity, social unrest, drug trafficking and dependence, illegal fishing and sea-borne terrorism also muddy the waters, often feeding on what is generally regarded as a great advantage: Maldives’ strategic location. At either end of this island chain—a virtual toll-gate in the ocean—are the two sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) critical for maritime trade between the Gulf of Aden and Strait of Hormuz in west Asia and the Malacca Strait in southeast Asia. 50 per cent of India’s external trade and 80 per cent of her energy imports pass through these westward SLOCs.
China, keen on an increased naval presence in the Indian Ocean, gained a crucial foothold when former president Abdulla Yameen offered it major infrastructural projects including a Male airport upgrade and a bridge linking Male to Hulhule island. Predictably, by 2018, Maldives—with a GDP of $9 billion—owed China $1.5 billion; nevertheless, Maldives is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Indian equities have largely been restored under the ‘India First’ policy of present president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. A net-security provider, India is also supporting major infrastructure ventures such as the $500 million Greater Male Connectivity Project. Health tourism is booming. A wide-ranging defence relationship covers training, joint patrols of the vast EEZ, Maritime Domain Awareness, military hardware, setting up a coastal radar system and so on. This partnership is not safe from internal political discord and is likely to be in focus again in the forthcoming September elections, particularly if Yameen, who launched an India-Out campaign, is allowed to run.
Despite all this it took me 12 hours to travel from Male to Delhi—as long as it takes one to fly directly from Delhi to Australia. The reason: there are no direct flights between Male and Delhi at present, never mind that India is the top source market for tourism for Maldives as well as the top tourist destination. Air India has completely halted operations to Maldives; the airline is a private operation now, but a nudge—or even a subsidy—should be possible. A direct flight between Delhi and strategically important Male should be a strategic decision, not a purely commercial one. It is not a good signal if official delegations—of which there are plenty—have to dog-leg it all the way, and in this game signals matter. Besides, it would be nice to have a direct connection to paradise.