Addu in the south of Maldives suddenly became vibrant as all the eight heads of states and governments arrived for the Saarc Summit held on November 10 and 11, writes former Bangladeshi High Commissioner to the Maldives, Selina Mohsin, for Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper.
On July 28, 2011, the government of India provided a grant of US$5 million to Maldives for the Saarc Summit in Addu. In return, the government of Maldives officially handed over a plot of land in the capital for the Indian Mission. Simultaneously, agreements for the construction of a multi-disciplinary university and health centres and upgrading of an existing hospital in Laamu Gan in Addu Atoll were finalised with an Indian company.
Two earlier Saarc Summits were successfully hosted by Maldives in the capital Male. The necessary buildings and infrastructure were present in the capital so why was this summit held in Addu at such a great cost? Two reasons can be cited. The first was concern that opposition parties might create a disturbance during the Summit and the other was a preference by India in collaboration with Maldives to develop Addu Atoll. India has a particular interest in Gan island in Addu.
Gan’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean was identified by the British, who first established a base there during the 2nd World War as part of the Indian Ocean defenses. In 1956, the British took over Gan and developed a Royal Air Force base with a large runaway, jetties and a series of causeways connecting several islands in the Atoll, which served as a Cold War outpost. In 1976, the British pulled out. India had recently shown keen interest in Gan as a strategic location, but an attempt to establish a base there was revealed in the Indian media and halted after an outcry from the People’s Majlis of Maldives on issues of sovereignty.
After the Mumbai bombing, India began a project to network all the 7,500 km of its coastline with radar. India probably intends to include Maldives in its security grid to have a permanent presence in Gan for its surveillance aircraft and ships. Secondly, India would like a secure foothold in the Indian Ocean where the power of China is increasing. Beijing has pockets of influence around India with the Chinese built ports of Gwador in Pakistan and Hambatota in the southern coast of Sri Lanka. As 60 percent of Chinese oil imports come from Africa, China has to maintain its ability to protect its interests on this ocean route.
It is felt that India, by providing a grant for the Saarc Summit and by building facilities in Addu Atoll, will surely gain a strong presence in Gan.