After facing resistance over placing its helicopters in the Maldives’ Addu atoll and the virtual cancellation of its project to develop the Assumption Island in the Seychelles earlier this year, New Delhi is moving swiftly but quietly to ensure its project in the Mauritius — to construct a jetty, rebuild and extend the runway, and build an airport terminal — does not run into trouble.
The $87 million project, to be funded by India, has been awarded to two Indian companies: AFCON construction group and RITES engineering consultancy. Surveys have begun to fulfil the contract signed on September 28 this year, which stipulated that construction begin by February 12, 2019, and be completed in 2021. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth’s government faced tough questions in the National Assembly as the Opposition raised a storm over Indian involvement in the project and its costs and whether it would involve a military component.
“Agalega is and will remain a Mauritian territory,” Vice-Prime Minister Fazila Jeewa Daureeawoo told the Assembly on Tuesday. “This is an important project. We don’t want the jetty and the airstrip to remain in poor condition,” she added.
In 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi had witnessed the signing of the agreement for Agalega Islands, the MoU had provided for “setting up and upgradation of infrastructure for improving sea and air connectivity” and enhancing “capabilities of the Mauritian Defence Forces in safeguarding their interests in the Outer Island.
However, since then, there have been growing reports over the Indian naval and coastguard’s interests in setting up transponder systems and surveillance infrastructure, which has led to some local protests.
In March this year, several Islanders, including some from Agalega, which has a tiny population of 300, formed the “Koalision Zilwa Pou Lape” (Islanders Coalition for Peace), to lobby against the Agalega project. The protests were fuelled by the fact that Mauritius is in a major international legal battle over the ownership of its Chagos Island at present, which were turned into the U.S.’s “Diego Garcia” naval base in the 1960s. France maintains naval bases in the Indian Ocean and stations frigates off its Reunion islands, while China has a string of naval assets in the region from Gwadar to Djibouti, all leading to fears of their peaceful island region becoming increasingly militarised.
However, Indian officials point out that India’s projects in the neighbourhood have never been acquisitive or “colonial”.
“Unlike the military bases run by other countries, the Indian model is of a soft base,” explained a government official. “We don’t bar locals from moving through any Indian-made project. So these governments get more control over their domain, without diluting their sovereignty,” the official added indicating that the government believes the protests are the product of “misunderstandings and some motivated elements”.
Even when AFCON and RITES engineers visited the islands for surveys recently, the official pointed out, they were greeted by the locals, who took their boats up to the ship that brought them in and even accommodated and fed them during their stay.
In Parliament, the Jugnauth government insists that the purpose of the Indian project remains to build up the jetty to be able to receive ships and to extend the runway, which is in very poor condition, from the existent 1,300 metres to 3,000 metres to allow bigger planes to access the islands. At present, said Ms. Daureeawoo, only emergency medical evacuations are allowed due to the poor surface of the runway. And while the Vice-Prime Minister claimed she “did not know”of India’s military plans, Indian Naval sources confirmed their involvement in the project.
Mauritian opposition members say they will continue to protest the government’s “lack of transparency” over the project, and the fact that the Mauritian government has exempted the project from any Environmental license process (EIA clearances).
Worries for India also come from the fact that it was just such protests, that began on a very small level in the Seychelles, that led to their plans for a coast guard facility on the Assumption Islands being shelved, after President Danny Faure saying he lacked the parliamentary strength to ratify it. The setback, according to speculation, may have been chalked up to China’s heavy investment in the Seychelles, which allowed it to lean on the Seychellois government.
A similar situation was believed to have led to former Maldivian President Yameen’s decision to cancel the loan of two Indian military helicopters and the visas of about 28 naval personnel, although after his defeat in elections, the decision may have been stayed.
“India needs to project itself as a credible and long term partner in a more persuasive manner, than what has been the experience in recent years,” Commodore (Retd) Uday Bhaskar of the Society for Policy Studies told The Hindu. “Islands in the Indian Ocean Region have acquired distinctive strategic relevance and India will have to step up its appeal and comfort index, more so since it is pitted against China’s deep pockets.”
The Agalega islands, with land of only about 25 square kilometres is now in the crosshairs of similar concerns, although most officials aware of developments believe India’s “softer” methods will ensure the success of the project. With two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments, a third of world’s bulk cargo and about half of all container traffic traversing through the Indian Ocean waters that surround nations like Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius and the Maldives at stake, it is easy to see that India’s claims of primacy in the Indian Ocean Region will face more such challenges.