Beyond the Cap­i­tal

While Malé is de­vel­op­ing rapidly, there is an acute lack of de­vel­op­ment in other is­lands and atolls of the Mal­dives.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Ha­roon Jan­jua

The Mal­dives is lo­cated in the In­dian Ocean, con­sist­ing of 1,192 co­ral is­lands grouped in a dou­ble chain of 26 atolls, along the north-south di­rec­tion. The atolls are spread over roughly 90,000 square kilo­me­ters, mak­ing the Mal­dives one of the world's most dis­persed coun­tries. For ad­min­is­tra­tive pur­poses th­ese atolls are or­ga­nized in 21 ad­min­is­tra­tive di­vi­sions.

The coun­try is unique in many ways. Its sur­face is 99 per­cent wa­ter and no land point is more than 2.4 me­ters above sea level. Its pop­u­la­tion of about 350,000 is spread over 200 in­hab­ited is­lands. The cap­i­tal Malé has 35 per­cent of the coun­try’s to­tal pop­u­la­tion, mak­ing the Mal­dives a coun­try with one of the high­est pop­u­la­tion den­si­ties in the world. Though the ur­ban­ized cap­i­tal pro­vides its res­i­dents easy ac­cess to a wide range of ser­vices, this is not the case

for the cit­i­zens of the en­tire coun­try.

In con­trast to the rapidly de­vel­op­ing cap­i­tal, there is a lack of uni­form de­vel­op­ment in other is­lands and atolls of the Mal­dives. The coun­try also faces prob­lems on the so­cial front due to grow­ing in­come dis­par­i­ties over the past years that fa­vor Malé and con­trib­ute to ur­ban mi­gra­tion.

De­spite the prom­ises of hold­ing elec­tions to de­cen­tral­ize ad­min­is­tra­tion and build re­sorts in dis­tant atolls, the gov­ern­ment is re­luc­tant to del­e­gate au­thor­ity and move var­i­ous of­fices, de­part­ments and even re­sorts away from the cap­i­tal. Ig­nor­ing of­fers from for­eign air­lines and gov­ern­ments, it con­tin­ues to re­sist the con­struc­tion of in­ter­na­tional air­ports in the north and south of the coun­try. Th­ese ar­eas are heav­ily pop­u­lated with almost 70 per­cent of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion. But they are eco­nom­i­cally back­ward and need av­enues for in­come gen­er­a­tion through tourism and other means. The gov­ern­ment’s ob­ses­sion with con­trol­ling ev­ery­thing has ef­fec­tively pre­vented any sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ment beyond Malé. The gov­ern­ment’s fear of los­ing its grip on power and its greed and a limited vi­sion are the fac­tors re­spon­si­ble for this.

Ac­cord­ing to statis­tics re­leased by the United Na­tions De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme (UNDP), the Mal­dives has the high­est per capita in­come in the South Asian re­gion, at over $2,000. But the cost of liv­ing in the coun­try is very high and there are sig­nif­i­cant in­come dif­fer­en­tials be­tween Malé and the atolls. In 1998, which is con­sid­ered a pe­riod of eco­nomic boom, Malé’s per capita in­come was 75 per­cent higher than the per capita in­come in the atolls. Life ex­pectancy in the atolls is much lower and 30 per­cent of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion lives be­low the poverty line.

In 2000, the tourism sec­tor made up 70 per­cent of the Mal­dives’ for­eign ex­change and gen­er­ated a third of the coun­try’s GDP. But the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Mal­di­vian peo­ple in the tourist re­sort in­dus­try is quite low. The majority of the re­sort staff is low-paid for­eign work­ers from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and In­dia, while the re­sorts them­selves are de­lib­er­ately con­cen­trated around Malé, which houses the coun­try’s sole in­ter­na­tional air­port. This en­sures that the prof­its from th­ese en­ter­prises re­main in the cap­i­tal. As a re­sult, some fam­i­lies in Malé have be­come ex­tremely rich and all landown­ers in the cap­i­tal have greatly ben­e­fit­ted from the phe­nom­e­nal in­crease in prop­erty value and rents.

Frus­tra­tion and anger are ram­pant among the majority who can­not ben­e­fit from the tourist bo­nanza and do not have ac­cess to gov­ern­ment jobs. Fish­ing is per­haps the only call­ing for most of the peo­ple liv­ing in atolls but all fish­ery poli­cies are con­trolled by ex­porters and of­fi­cials who are based in Malé. As if this is not enough, the courts in Malé have found it con­ve­nient to send con­victed

De­spite the prom­ises of hold­ing elec­tions to de­cen­tral­ize ad­min­is­tra­tion and build re­sorts in dis­tant atolls, the gov­ern­ment is re­luc­tant to del­e­gate au­thor­ity and move var­i­ous of­fices, de­part­ments and even re­sorts away from the cap­i­tal.

crim­i­nals to jails in atolls be­cause of ‘over­crowd­ing in Malé's jails’. This has con­trib­uted to the rise of drug net­works across the atolls. At the 2003 Atoll Chiefs’ Con­fer­ence in Malé, many com­plained about th­ese crim­i­nals and their neg­a­tive in­flu­ence on the youth.

Ac­cord­ing to the 2006 cen­sus, about one per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion was liv­ing on less than $1 a day and the gov­ern­ment of the Mal­dives had re­solved to halve the num­ber of such peo­ple as a part of its Mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goals. How­ever, in­equal­i­ties have widened with an alarm­ing in­crease in poverty in the atolls, par­tic­u­larly in the north and north-cen­tral re­gions. It is vi­tal to en­sure in­clu­sive growth. The gov­ern­ment claims that it is work­ing to trans­form the frag­mented so­cial safety net pro­grams into a com­pre­hen­sive, three-tiered so­cial pro­tec­tion sys­tem. But the progress so far is slow.

The lit­er­acy rate in most atolls is very low. Teach­ers face dif­fi­cul­ties in de­liv­er­ing lessons due to lack of re­sources such as li­braries, sci­ence and com­puter labs and mul­ti­me­dia-equipped class­rooms. The dropout rate is in­creas­ing and a num­ber of stu­dents have quit school to work in the tourism sec­tor. Teach­ers also iden­tify limited op­por­tu­ni­ties for fur­ther stud­ies and a lack of vo­ca­tional train­ing as press­ing is­sues.

The health­care sec­tor in all the is­lands re­mains weak. The lack of trained doc­tors and ac­cess to medicines are the key is­sues af­fect­ing the masses. Some is­lands do not have phar­ma­cies and the res­i­dents have to travel to the cap­i­tal to get every­day medicines such as Panadol and Oral Re­hy­dra­tion Salts (ORS).

Lack of jobs op­por­tu­ni­ties is also hin­der­ing the de­vel­op­ment of th­ese is­lands. The ab­sence of re­sorts in var­i­ous atolls, de­spite a num­ber of is­lands hav­ing been leased out for re­sort de­vel­op­ment sev­eral years back, has de­prived res­i­dents of civic ameni­ties such as roads and other in­fra­struc­ture – a byprod­uct of re­sorts.

The in­volve­ment of women in the work­force is limited to low-paid, me­nial jobs. Women in the atolls mostly serve as san­i­tary work­ers or help in clear­ing weeds for road de­vel­op­ment. Some women weave co­conut leaves to make a va­ri­ety of prod­ucts that are sold at re­sorts. But none of th­ese jobs help women in be­com­ing fi­nan­cially in­de­pen­dent and an im­por­tant part of the coun­try’s la­bor force.

Although the Min­istry for the De­vel­op­ment of Atolls sup­ports lo­cal gov­er­nance, de­cen­tral­iza­tion and ad­min­is­tra­tive re­forms, it has done lit­tle to im­ple­ment th­ese mea­sures. As a re­sult, lack of de­vel­op­ment is ob­vi­ous in the atolls. The rea­sons for this are also known and the gov­ern­ment is aware of the sit­u­a­tion. It may even be try­ing to ad­dress the con­cerns of the res­i­dents of th­ese atolls, but its earnest­ness and the speed at which it is tak­ing ac­tion leaves much to be de­sired.

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