Alarm bells are ringing in South Block after the Maldives Parliament on Wednesday amended the nation’s Constitution to allow foreign ownership of land.
While there has been no formal word on the issue, The Indian Express has learnt that officials are “concerned” that the amendments will enable China to buy islands and build strategic assets in the Indian Ocean nation.
India’s relationship with the current government in Maldives has not been at its best after the arrest and imprisonment of former president Mohammad Nasheed. Four months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi put off his Maldives visit following Nasheed’s detention.
The latest move comes after Indian firm GMR was ousted from the airport development project, with Chinese firms gaining a foothold in the nation.
The amendments, which were passed by the 85-member Majlis, will allow foreigners who invest more than US$1bn to purchase land within the project site — at least 70 per cent of the area of the completed project must be reclaimed land.
The Constitution previously prohibited foreign ownership of any part of Maldivian territory, but allowed leasing of land for up to 99 years.
The amendments submitted on behalf of the Abdulla Yameen government by the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) was passed with 70 votes in favour and 14 against, with one MP absent.
Significantly, 10 MPs of the main Opposition — ex-president Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) — and nine MPs of the Jumhooree Party (JP) also voted in favour of the proposed changes.
The PPM and its coalition partner Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) control 48 seats in the House.
Other Opposition MPs, however, expressed concern over “possible Chinese military expansion” in the Maldives.
What has alarmed New Delhi, however, is the speed with which the amendments were passed.
The Bill was submitted on Monday, debated and sent to a review committee at an extraordinary sitting on Tuesday night, and put to vote on Wednesday. The Bill was sent to the 11-member committee at around 12:30am – the panel reportedly approved the amendments at around 1:30am.
“The parliamentary panel reviewed and approved the Bill within just one hour… that raises alarm bells,” sources said.
The legislative process in Maldives includes three main stages and usually takes weeks or months. But under the new rules, a Bill can be debated and passed into law on the same day.
The Maldives government maintained that the new law was necessary to attract large-scale foreign investments and to launch “mega projects”, which Yameen said would “transform” the economy and reduce the reliance on tourism.
The Bill is the second amendment proposed to the Maldives Constitution since it was ratified in 2008. In June, MPs had passed the first amendment to set new age limits of 30-65 years for the presidency.
New Delhi sees the latest development in the context of Maldives President Abdulla Yameen’s declared foreign policy shift to the East since last year.
Chinese President Xi Jingping was the first head of state to visit the Maldives after Yameen assumed power.
During the visit, the Maldives agreed to become a partner in China’s maritime silk route, a trade route from China’s Fujian province to the Mediterranean Sea via South Asia and East Africa.
China is also providing grants and loans to the Maldives to build a bridge between the capital and the airport. Chinese companies are involved in work on the airport, too, and have been handed islands for developing resorts.
In January, the MDP had alleged the government was planning to award parts of south central Laamu Atoll to China for a military base. The Chinese embassy dismissed the allegations as “completely false.”