SAARC: next stop Addu City

October 6th, 2011 - 1:33 pm ICT by IANS  

South Asia’s smallest country, the Maldives, is gearing up to host the next SAARC summit, which begins on Nov 10. It hosted previous summits in 1990 and 1997. The unique feature now is that the country’s southernmost region, Addu City, will have the privilege to play host. As President Mohamed Nasheed receives seven heads of state or government from the neighbourhood, it will be the first time that the summit goes south of the equator.

Addu Atoll, comprising about a dozen islands, might seem an unlikely venue for a regional summit. This is virtually the southernmost tip of South Asia, with inadequate infrastructure and conference facilities. Organising the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Addu could be a logistical nightmare. But the country’s first democratic government, following the multi-party elections held in 2008, operates under Nasheed’s dynamic leadership. It is determined to hold a successful summit and use it as a potent instrument to catalyse rapid socio-economic development of a part of the country that had got left behind.

The segment of Addu Atoll, which will witness the summit, stretches from the airport in Gan to a small but beautiful lake on Hithadhoo Island at the other end. Almost in the middle is the place where a brand new conference centre is under construction. I saw frantic activity going on to construct and upgrade roads around it as well as extension of the road connecting Gan and the island of Meradhoo.

Standing on the existing link road, as one looks to the right, one can admire a far away island covered by dense foliage. This is where Shangri La’s famous Villingili resort is located, boasting of luxurious cottages and a fabulous sandy beach, where SAARC leaders and their spouses will stay. They will be transported on speed boats to Feydhoo Island where a new harbour is under construction now, with officials promising to do everything possible to get it ready on time.

As the historic opportunity to host the SAARC conference helps in the southern region’s development, the Maldives is riding on the crest of major reforms unleashed by the Nasheed government in the past three years. Genuine democracy is in operation now, with stress on enhancing transparency, social justice and human rights. Decentralisation of power has led to the creation of a new city council in Addu City, putting it on a par in legal terms with the capital, Male.

The government’s new policy aims to accelerate economic growth. Foreign investment is actively sought by the country as it launches a massive programme to improve transport connectivity in its 200 inhabited islands, enhance productivity and diversify its economy beyond tourism and fishing. The objective is to build more capacities in aquaculture, renewable energy, and small and medium enterprises.

SAARC summits require massive resources - financial and others. It is heartening to learn that several South Asian neighbours have come forward to extend assistance. It is befitting that India’s package of assistance is the most generous one.

Apart from gifting $5 million, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, on his visit to the Maldives in July, promised to be helpful in other ways as well. As soon as D.M. Mulay, the Indian high commissioner, learnt of a special project arranged by the ministry of foreign affairs to train a select group of 50 promising young people of the southern region to serve as protocol liaison officers for the Summit, he arranged with the South Block to secure the services of a former Indian ambassador for the purpose.

The Indian Coast Guard provides valuable assistance to the Maldivian National Defence Force through its technical contingent and the Dhruv helicopter based in Gan. This should prove to be a useful asset when the summit gets going.

With the winds of change blowing, companies in the largest member-state of SAARC should awaken a little more. India Inc. needs to put the Maldives sharply on its radar by contributing to a rapid expansion of the education, health, energy, tourism and infrastructure sectors. The Indian government should strive to improve connectivity by starting a direct flight between New Delhi and Male. It should also offer to set up a diplomatic service training academy in the country.

The summit in Addu takes place at a critical juncture for SAARC. The association’s stock is a matter of debate, but significantly a fresh soul-searching endeavour, through the newly-minted South Asian Forum, is under way to craft a medium-term vision for the association. SAARC leaders can hope to enjoy a highly serene and picturesque atmosphere in which to address this challenge and tackle other tasks. They will be welcomed and watched by a most curious, excited and enthusiastic people from the southernmost rim of the SAARC region. If the summit succeeds in firing people’s imagination, Addu might just become a household word in South Asia.

(06.10.2011 Rajiv Bhatia is a former Indian ambassador with keen interest in South Asian affairs. He has contributed this article after a fortnight’s sojourn in the Maldives. He can be contacted at rajivbhatia@airtelmail.in)

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