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Economy Dec 5, 2012

Why Male is fighting so hard for its airport

By G Pramod Kumar

The Maldivian government's standoff with GMR, and speculations as to what will happen in three days when the company has to vacate the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport in the capital Male, are perhaps the only chatter among the Maldivian middle class and the country's diaspora.

The government of the archipelago seems to be quite certain that it will be able to wrest control of the airport from the Indian infrastructure major despite the Singapore High Court's injunction; but GMR says it is not going anywhere.

Some speculate that the big discount sales at the airport's duty-free shops are a sign of defeat of the Indian company.

Will the government send its army, the MDNF, to the airport if GMR refuses to vacate? Will that be the climax that will make an average Maldivian nationalist happy?

Maldives is all about tourism, its tourism industry is a complete sell-out, and common people are really sore about it. AFP

Even if the government comes anywhere close to that, its relationship with India would have turned a full circle in a strange way. More than two decades ago, the Indian army was called in to save the country, which was then under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, from a rag-tag band of mercenaries. India was a hero among the Maldivians then.

Whatever is the merit of the GMR case - the present government saying that the deal with GMR was illegal and that it was approved without the AG's permission and parliament's approval, while people close to the pro-India Nasheed government vouching for its bonafide intentions - the controversy is not new. Right from the beginning, it has been an emotive issue of sovereignty and the deal, hugely political.

We in India are hearing about it only now because things have reached a precipitation point and we are annoyed that a tiny country of 300,000 people, to whom we have given a lot, has dared to question our big-brother authority.

There is nothing else in Male, other than the airport, that that Maldivians are proud of. And giving it away to an Indian company, that is allowed to charge its users $25 every time they fly out, has been a huge affront to them. For nearly two years, GMR figured in every conversation that I had with a Maldivian, particularly when it came to privatisation, public private partnerships or government policies on employment.

There are a few reasons for this.

One: Maldives is all about tourism, its tourism industry is a complete sell-out, and common people are really sore about it.

Although Maldives has been associated with breathtaking white-sand and blue-water postcard images and ultra-luxury resorts that attract people like Tom Cruise, they are hardly Maldivian and have nothing to do with the people of the country.

They occupy whole islands and are literally private sovereign territories - they import everything, have their own infrastructure for power, water and other amenities, and serve the highest end of international tourists. Most of the Maldivians are too crude to work there, let alone visit them.

A 2010 survey by UNDP and the Ministry of Economic Development showed that the share of tourism-related small and medium enterprises was only one percent outside capital Male. That nothing trickles from these investments to improve the livelihoods of the majority, is also reflected by the fact that more than 90 percent of the souvenirs sold in the resorts are imported from South East Asia.

The government cannot do much about this because 30 percent of its GDP still comes from tourism and it also employs roughly one-third of the country's workforce, however menial and lower-category jobs they are. With roughly one-third unemployed and a large number dependent on government jobs and fishing, there is practically no big private sector employer other than tourism.

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by G Pramod Kumar

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