Shades of opinion that the matter could have been handled more sensitively

The announcement that the Maldivian government had taken control of the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport from the airport operator GMR was celebrated at a public meeting here late on Friday, though some ordinary Maldivians were not sure if it was the smart thing to do.

Maldivians who support ‘Anni’ (former President Mohamed Nasheed) feel that GMR got caught in a political crossfire, while other shades of opinion held that the issue could have been handled more sensitively. “This is not about GMR; this is not about managing an airport. This is about targeting Nasheed,” said Mickail Naseem, who is here on a semester break from Cambridge.

“If they [the government] really had the interests of the country at heart, they should have made sure that GMR built a better airport,” said Naseem, who volunteers for the youth wing of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) but does not hold a position.

Ali Yousuf, a journalist, held that the government was right in taking back the airport, but felt it should have handled the issue better.

A few youth, who said that they support parties in the current government, were vehemently critical of the decision to give the airport to a foreign company. “Oh yes, we do want a second Heathrow, but the point is, can we do it?” asked one youth, who gave his name as Abdullah, a local businessman. He said that this gateway airport, one of the two international airports in the country, should not be handed over to a foreign company to run it.

Abdullah and a few others were firm that no foreign power, China included, should be allowed to run the airport. “Maldivians toiled to build this airport. You have to understand that this is an emotional issue. I don’t want it being run by a foreign company,” said Ismail Sharief, a businessman. “We are not against GMR or anyone. There are many other Indian investments. There has been no problem for any of them.”

Overseeing the preparations for the public meeting at Artificial Beach — an area that is designed for meeting and protests — was Ahmed Shameem, a State Minister for Tourism. He insisted that he and volunteers were organising meetings on issues, and GMR was one of the many issues they had taken up under the banner ‘Maldivian Citizens National Movement. “As of midnight today [Friday], the GMR issue ceases to exist. Our next focus will be the Majlis [Parliament]. They [MPs] are not working for people. Some of them are working at the behest of foreign powers,” he alleged.

Many Maldivians on the streets of Male — a small island of 192 ha area, which is home to a third of the population — said they wanted smooth facilities at the airport. A few recall that it had much fewer facilities earlier, and that there has been considerable development after GMR took over in 2010. “There was no improvement in the airport earlier [before GMR came in]. After GMR, there was a lot of change. They ran it better,” said Miaz Ibrahim. “No one can surely dispute that.”

In a country where nearly everyone is literate and where everyone is affiliated to a political party, it also follows that everyone has a reasoned-out opinion on all issues. Everyone this correspondent spoke to in the island-capital, wanted a better airport for sure, but differed on how to go about it. The MDP has the largest membership among the 3-lakh Maldives populace, but falls hugely short of the half-way mark.

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