Fijians fume at India land swap
Residents of Fiji's capital Suva are questioning the government's decision to allow a new Indian High Commission to be built at the city's much-loved botanical gardens.
It's a reciprocal arrangement with India's government, which in 2014 gifted a prime piece of land in New Delhi to the Fijian High Commission, the Fiji Village news site reports.
That move was heavily criticised in India at the time, with objectors complaining that the high value of the land did not reflect Fiji's modest diplomatic status in India, even though nearly 40% of Fijians are of Indian descent.
Nor would building in affordable Suva be a like-for-like swap for the pricey real estate in New Delhi's Chanakyapuri diplomatic enclave. Critics argued that India would be the loser in the arrangement.
Nearly five years later it's Fijians who are protesting at the deal, and MPs and other public figures are encouraging the public to sign a petition warning of possible environmental damage to the Thurston Gardens.
Allen Lockington, who started the petition, told Radio New Zealand that he was concerned that "construction will encroach into the botanical gardens... and we just hope that no trees will be cut down, exotic trees".
He also expressed concern about the impact of the high security levels required by foreign missions.
"Will freedom of movement be easy for the people who go to the gardens?" he wondered.
An editorial in the Fiji Times warned that the deal could lead to further building in the gardens. "Every small encroachment on this green and cultural environment and physical space must be resisted, as future allocations of new space by any government will be as scarce as hen's teeth," it said.
The paper speculated that India was trying to assert its regional power in Fiji and "balance" the proximity and status of the Chinese Embassy.
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Government assurances that the chancery will be built in a marginal plot have only raised concerns about it blocking future expansion of the Fiji Museum, which is also located in Thurston Gardens.
The museum is the oldest in the South Pacific.
India's foreign minister told parliament in 2014 that Fiji had been given 93 acres (37 hectares) of land in Delhi worth $50m (£39m), and in return Fiji would give India a plot worth $700,000 (£545,750) to build its new mission in Suva.
The Fijian government offered India a plot of 6,467 sq m (69,610 sq ft) on a special lease of 99 years.
Minister for Lands and Mineral Resources Ashneel Sudhakar has sought to defend the deal, saying the plot has "stood idle for the past 100 years".
Suva City Council says the public has until 25 February to register objections.
Reporting by Nel Hodge
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