India, Seychelles Sign Revised Pact on Assumption island to Allay Local Fears

The revised agreement addresses lingering concerns in the Seychelles on matters related to ownership and sovereignty.

New Delhi: In his last foreign assignment as foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar signed a revised agreement for development of Seychelles’Assumption island to alleviate political concerns within the Indian Ocean nation over ownership and use of the facility that India will develop.

The ‘Agreement between India and Seychelles for the Development, Management, Operation and Maintenance of Facilities on Assumption island’ was signed in Victoria on Saturday with Jaishankar representing the Indian side and Barry Faure, Seychelles secretary of state, the hosts. The Indian foreign secretary demits office on January 28 and will be succeeded by Vijay Gokhale.

The revised agreement, according to sources, provides a bit more clarity on the language so as to address domestic political sensitivities by addressing any lingering concerns on matters related to ownership and sovereignty.

The agreement will be valid for 20 years, after which it can be renewed for periods of 10 years at a time. The notice period for terminating the agreement is one year.

The infrastructure that India has to build includes renovating the airstrip, upgrading the jetty and constructing quarters for the Seychelles Coast Guard. This will allow the island to be used by the Seychelles Coast Guard as a forward base to patrol a section of its EEZ which is lightly watched right now and plagued by illegal fishing and drug running.

The agreement clause allows for other countries to use the facilities “subject to concurrence of both parties”.

To make the agreement more acceptable domestically, there is also a clause to make it clear that India can’t use the facilities on Assumption island during a war. According to sources, there is no linkage of “suspension” with war. Suspension, which is the last stage in the termination clause, is mentioned in a different context, sources added.

During his meeting with Jaishankar, Seychelles president Danny Faure described the project as one of “utmost importance” to his country. The Assumption island project “attests to the kinship and affinity that exists between our two countries”, he added.

Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. Credit: Google Maps

In a statement read out just before signing the revised agreement, Jaishankar said, “In recognition of our strategic convergence in the Indian Ocean region, the agreement that we sign today is an incremental step forward in further deepening our cooperation in the spirit of our unique bilateral ties”.

He noted that India and Seychelles have built “an elaborate architecture of defence and cooperation”, especially since  the1.3 million square kilometres of EEZ makes the Indian Ocean island chain “particularly vulnerable”. “As two maritime neighbours, we have a stake in each other’s security and safety,” he added.

India has also set up a coastal radar surveillance radar system in Seychelles in 2016. New Delhi has donated three patrol ships and a Dornier aircraft to the Seychelles defence forces.

During Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s March 2015 visit to Seychelles, the two countries had first signed an agreement for development of facilities at Assumption island. This was supposed to be part of India’s consolidation efforts in the Indian Ocean region in the face of China’s intense campaign to woo smaller island states and rising naval presence. During the same tour, Modi had signed a similar agreement with Mauritius for Agalega island.

However, the Seychelles agreement was never implemented, as it wasn’t tabled in the National Assembly for ratification despite the pact being signed during the term of President James Michel when the ruling party had the majority in the parliament.

With the agreement not made public, there had been some apprehension among Seychellois civil society and the opposition about the provisions of the agreement. After Indian media reports, the Seychelles army chief had to even clarify that there was “no lease agreement”.

In an interview with The Wire, the Seychelles leader of opposition, Wavel Ramkalawan, who actually leads the majority in the parliament, said, “…when the MoU was signed, but no details were given. This is what made a lot of us suspicious. What is it about? What is not being told to us? There were all these questions”.

In the 2016 parliamentary elections, the ruling party lost its majority in the National Assembly, which went to the opposition coalition, Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS). James Michel resigned and handed over power to his vice-president, Danny Faure in October 2016.

Faure did share the text of agreement with the leader of the opposition, but he also initiated plans to revise the language of some of the clauses. There was a proposal to table the agreement in December in the parliament, but it didn’t take place.

The opposition leader, Ramkalawan, had pointed fingers at the government for being “very slow” in taking forward the agreement. The opposition coalition, which controls the parliament, had already expressed support for the original agreement, after Faure provided them a copy. Therefore, when the revised pact is tabled in the parliament – most likely in February’s last week, it is expected to be smooth sailing.