The anti-GMR campaign took to the seas on Monday afternoon in an effort to increase pressure on the government to “reclaim” Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) from Indian infrastructure giant GMR.
A seaborne armada of about 15 dhonis carrying flags and banners circled the airport as part of an ongoing campaign to annul the contract signed between the former government and GMR to manage and develop a new terminal at INIA.
State Home Minister Abdulla Mohamed told Haveeru that 50,000 people have signed the petition put together by a group of NGOs seeking to annul the agreement and nationalise the airport.
In response to the large number of boats circling the airport, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) increased its seaborne presence to counter the rally, using coastguard vessels to block the entrance to the airport harbour.
MNDF Colonel Abdul Raheem told Minivan News: We had no major concern yesterday, we did not increase our military presence at the airport itself, instead we wanted to make sure that no one [from the protest] could enter the airport area from the sea.”
Adhaalath Party President Sheikh Imran Abdulla told Haveeru the protesters had no intention of disembarking at the airport and that the purpose of the rally was to “observe airport operations in the area”.
Last week Sheikh Imran gave the government a six-day ultimatum to annul the GMR agreement (by November 15).
Former Minister of Economic Development Mahmood Razee said recent actions protesting the GMR agreement, such as Monday’s rally, risked putting off future foreign investors.
“This is the largest single investment the Maldives has seen, and if GMR do leave, it means that other investors who have previously expressed interest, or who may look to invest in the future, will be put off,” he warned.
“[Annulling the agreement] will also affect tourism, as the capacity we have to accommodate tourists at the airport is already very limited.
“Any further growth cannot be accommodated with the current airport facilities, and if GMR pull out, the government does not have the money to accommodate tourism growth.”
The demonstrators are calling for the government to terminate the agreement with GMR – a 25-year concession agreement to develop and manage the airport, and overhaul the existing terminal while a new one is constructed on the other side of the island. The agreement represents the largest case of foreign investment in the Maldives.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed, whose government approved the deal in 2010, this month slammed statements over the “reclaiming” of the airport from GMR. Nasheed claimed such comments were “highly irresponsible”, stating that such words from the government could cause irreparable damage to the country.
The present government has continued to press to “re-nationalise” the airport, with the country’s Deputy Tourism Minister confirming to Indian media in September that the administration would not “rule out the possibility of cancelling the award [to GMR]”.
Several other Indian companies operating in the Maldives have expressed concern over political interference that they say is derailing their substantial investments in the country.
Officials involved in the Apex Realty housing development project – a joint venture between developers SG18 and Indian super-conglomerate TATA – told India’s Business Standard publication that the government was attempting to take over the site in Male’ given to the company, with the intention of building a new Supreme Court.
The Adhaalath Party has recently stepped up efforts to oppose the upholding of the airport deal. A number of gatherings in the capital Male’ and a petition sent to the government have all been part of the party’s efforts.
Also against the GMR deal is the government-aligned DQP, whose leader Dr Hassan Saeed serves as special advisor to President Waheed, as well as being his party’s presidential candidate.
Last month, Dr Saeed launched a book concluding that the only option for “reclaiming the airport from GMR” is to invalidate or cancel the concession agreement.
Should the GMR deal be annulled, Sheik Imran has previously predicted there would be “some unrest and damage”, but urged people to come out and support the calls for nationalisation.
According to Imran, his rejection was not based on animosity towards India, as the GMR issue was “only a disagreement between the Maldivian government and a private company”. He expressed his hope that the Indian government would not get involved in the matter.