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