India’s vaccine diplomacy is yet another testament to its Neighbourhood First policy, in which Maldives occupies a special and central place, sources said. This is reciprocated in full measure by the ‘India First’ policy of the Government of Maldives. The Prime Minister during his visit to Maldives in June 2019 rightly said ‘Neighbourhood First is our priority; and in the Neighbourhood Maldives is priority’.
The delivery of these vaccines in Maldives today fulfils the commitment made by Foreign Secretary during his visit to the Maldives in November 2020 when he announced that as a close partner and friend, India would accord priority to Maldives for providing vaccines, whenever these vaccines are ready.
Since Maldives has a population of about 500,000, the donation will cover vaccination requirement of a significant percentage of the population. In addition, Maldives proposes to purchase 300,000 doses of vaccines from SII at commercial rates.
Right from the start of the COVID pandemic, India has worked very closely with the Maldives in dealing with the pandemic. Among all neighbours, Maldives was the first and one of the largest beneficiaries of India’s Covid related assistance. This includes assistance in evacuation of Maldives nationals from Wuhan, supply of essential medicines and food items and deployment of a 14 member Rapid Response Team consisting of doctors and paramedics in March 2020 to guide and train the Maldivian authorities and personnel in tackling Corona threat.
– When international borders were closed due to the pandemic in April 2020, Operation Sanjeevani was launched to meet the medicine requirements of Maldives. Under this operation, a special Indian Air Force plane airlifted 6.2 tonnes of essential medical supplies from India to Maldives. Also, as part of Mission SAGAR, Male was the first port of call for Indian Navy Ship Kesari which delivered about 600 tons of food items to Maldives in May 2020 thus ensuring food security.
Maldives Foreign Minister has publicly announced that India has been the *first and the best responder* for the Maldives during this crisis. It is noteworthy that Indian assistance comes without any pre-conditions or expectations.
Besides providing assistance to the Maldives in terms of medicines, food items, medical expertise, vaccines etc, India has provided the following assistance to the Maldives for its post Covid economic recovery:
In order to support the tourism industry of Maldives, which is the main revenue earner for its government, it was decided to create an air travel bubble with the Maldives in August 2020. Maldives was the first country in South Asia with which an air travel bubble was established.
The air bubble has been very successful and at present there are 40 flights to Maldives from 6 different cities of India. Creation of the air bubble has helped revive Maldives tourism industry thereby boosting its economy.
Following creation of the air bubble with Maldives, with more than 60,000 tourist arrivals, India now occupies the number one spot as a tourist source in the Maldives. This position was occupied by China before the Covid pandemic.
With tourism and fish exports coming to a grinding halt due to the Covid pandemic, the Maldivian economy was under immense strain. India’s steadfast support to Maldives was conveyed by PM Modi to the President of Maldives during their telecon in April 2020.
In September 2020, India extended an urgent financial assistance of US$ 250 million to Maldives through investment by SBI in Maldives bonds. This was the first assistance package of such a magnitude that was announced by India to any country to deal with COVID-19 pandemic.
Being an import dependent economy, Maldives bore the worst brunt of supply-chain disruptions during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was, therefore, decided to launch a direct cargo ferry service between India and Maldives to ensure a reliable and predictable supply chain for Maldives and boost bilateral trade. An announcement to commence the service was made by the Minister in August 2020 and the maiden journey of the cargo ferry service was flagged off by Minister of Shipping of India and Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation of Maldives in September 2020.
The cargo ferry service has ensured food security to Maldives.
On 16 April 2020, a telephone call between the PM and the Bhutanese PM on COVID-19 situation during which PM assured his Bhutanese counterpart of all possible support by India in to deal with the COVID-19 situation and beyond.
In line with India-Bhutan unique and special relations, India ensured continuous supply of trade and essential items to Bhutan, despite COVID-19 related lock-downs. India so far has provided essential medicines and medical supplies- including Paracetamol, Hydroxychloroquine, PPEs, N95 masks, x-ray machine and test kits worth over INR 2.8 Core to the Royal Government of Bhutan. India has entered into an “Air Travel Arrangement” or “Transport Bubble” agreement with Bhutan.
India has facilitated repatriation of over 2000 Bhutanese nationals stranded in various parts of India. Also facilitated repatriation of 14 Bhutanese nationals stranded in third countries through Vande Bharat flights to India and their onward journey to Bhutan.
As part of India’s ‘science diplomacy’ initiative for strengthening clinical trial capacity for Phase-III clinical trials of Indian COVID-19 vaccine candidates in neighbouring countries, e-training courses are being organized by India’s Department of Biotechnology for the medical health professionals from the neighbouring countries. So far three such e-courses have been completed.
On the request of Bhutan, India has also expedited the release of Rs 501 Cr for their reprioritized projects to meet the emerging challenges caused by COVID-19, in addition to other fund releases for the ongoing projects.
India has taken several steps at the request of Bhutan to facilitate trade and transit during COVID times which includes opening of new trade route via Torsha Tea Garden (India) and Ahllay (Bhutan). New trade points at Nagarkata, Agartala, and Pandu & Jogighopa riverine ports will be operational shortly.