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New envoy for Maldives, setback for GMR
- Court rules in favour of island nation in airport row with Indian firm

New Delhi, Dec. 6: New Delhi announced a new envoy to the Maldives on a day Indian firm GMR suffered a setback in a legal battle sparked by the island nation’s decision to scrap a deal with the company to run Male airport.

The announcement that Rajeev Shahare will replace D.M. Mulay as the high commissioner in Male came hours after an appeals court in Singapore upheld the annulment and allowed the Maldives government to take back the GMR-built airport. Both New Delhi and GMR said they were “studying” the judgment.

Shahare, now a joint secretary in the external affairs ministry, is expected to take charge in Male early next year, sources said.

Mulay, whose role in handling the fluid political situation in the archipelago came in for criticism from Maldivian political parties, will be India’s consul-general in New York and assume charge there in March, ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said.

Mulay has completed three years and seven months in Male and his transfer is routine, Akbaruddin claimed. The ministry follows a convention under which an officer is not given more than three years in a post. But Mulay was granted an extension primarily to ensure “continuity” in New Delhi’s handling of the situation. Also, most other diplomats weren’t keen on Male, considered a “category B”, or not a high-profile, posting.

Shahare, who currently handles the ministry’s North Africa and West Asia desk, was to be posted to Botswana. But the recent crisis in Male over the GMR row appears to have made the ministry realise it needs a “more seasoned” hand in what has become an “extremely sensitive” posting.

The sources said Mulay couldn’t handle the political upheavals with the desired equanimity and hoped that Shahare, a soft-spoken officer known for his “mature” handling of difficult diplomatic assignments and with his background in student politics, may be a better bet.

Shahare will not only need to resolve the GMR imbroglio but also handle parties tactfully in the run-up to the presidential elections in July next year.

For now, the airport row appears to have taken centre stage after the Singapore court verdict today prompted an aide of President Mohamed Waheed to indicate that it could take less than 48 hours for the government to take back the airport.

“By Friday midnight, we will take over,” Masood Imad, media secretary to President Waheed, said hours after the court order. A spokesperson for GMR did not immediately spell out the next step, saying the company would go through the order first.

With the nod for the takeover — the court had offered GMR a reprieve earlier this week by staying the deal’s termination — the focus shifted to compensation for GMR in the $500-million airport project. New Delhi reiterated that it would like to see “fulfilment” of legal processes and adherence to all relevant contracts and agreements on the damages.

Earlier, New Delhi had also conveyed to the Maldives that it expected no arbitrary and coercive action pending the outcome of the GMR case, warning it would have adverse consequences on bilateral relations.

The Maldives indicated compensation would be given but the two sides haven’t yet agreed on the terms. Under the contract signed in 2010 during the regime of previous President Mohamed Nasheed, Maldives would have to pay about $400 million (Rs 2,200cr) for the deal’s termination.

The island nation’s government, though, sought to play down signs of rancour. Imad, the media secretary to current President Waheed, said none of the GMR officials would be asked to leave immediately. “We shall not witch-hunt. All GMR staff who want to stay can stay,” he said.

But the standoff could cloud foreign investor sentiment on the Maldives — the GMR deal was the largest overseas investment in the nation — at a time it is seeking overseas cash for ambitious hotel projects to sustain tourism, the country’s mainstay.