False hopes: the great bridge of Malé

False hopes: the great bridge of Malé
January 24 17:20 2016

Waves of migration from the Maldives’ remote islands to its capital Malé have overwhelmed public services here. Our atolls, despite millions of dollars collected in tourism revenue, remain neglected. As Malé’s population grows exponentially – rising from 55,130 people in 1990 to 126,080 in 2014 – entire islands have turned to ghost villages.

Rent prices here now equal that of the world’s most developed cities. The streets are congested, while the schools, drug rehabilitation centers, jails and the children’s shelter are packed. Long queues are common at the public hospital.

Discontent is boiling over the poor quality of education, health care, and water and sanitation facilities.

Yet President Abdulla Yameen’s administration wants even more people to move to the Malé region, this time to the reclaimed island of Hulhumalé, where he hopes to relocate some 70 percent of the Maldives’ population. He is planning to connect the capital and its suburb with a bridge, financed by Chinese loans. The so-called Youth City is touted as the panacea for all ills.

But without improvements in the quality of health care and education, and a concerted effort to add jobs, Hulhumalé is at the risk of becoming a second Malé – a polluted and diseased city riddled with corruption, gang violence, drug abuse, human trafficking, unemployment and environmental degradation.

According to the 2014 census, some 60 percent of Malé’s residents are from the atolls. Surveys show that migrant families spend a majority of their income on rent. For many, their only hope of affordable housing is the off chance of being selected for a social housing unit.

Meanwhile, there is little regulation of the housing sector in Malé. Over the past year, it has seen an increase in fatalities due to unfinished stairwells, elevator shafts and balconies.

Unemployment is on the rise. Overall unemployment rate stands at 11.7 percent, but more worrying is that some 32 percent of youth aged 20-24 years are neither participating in higher education nor working, according to World Bank figures. Higher education enrollment is just six percent, while over 95 percent of enrollment in the Maldives National University and other private education institutions is in pre-degree diploma and certificate programs. Lack of jobs and education is driving youth to drugs and criminality.

According to the home ministry, there are as many as 30 gangs operating in Malé. Disaffected young men are willing to vandalize, assault and kill for money. Some 33 people have lost their lives to violent crime over the past five years. Only a handful are prosecuted, but the jails are packed with young men and women incarcerated for long periods on petty crimes. The real criminals walk free because they can afford to bribe judges.

Conservatism is growing. At least a hundred Maldivians have left to fight in Syria and Iraq. Malé has seen a series of crimes in the name of Islam, including a murder attempt on a blogger in 2012, the abduction of several young Maldivians perceived as liberal in 2014 and the disappearance of a journalist that same year.

The Maldives also holds the highest divorce rate in the world. Girls marry young and have children early. The rate of domestic violence is alarming, but perpetrators enjoy absolute immunity.

Political instability is only adding to the hopelessness. The government has imprisoned opposition leaders or forced them into exile, and cracked down on media and civil society.

But Yameen’s government proposes little to no remedies. He touts an agenda of economic revitalization and hope, but in practice, his policy proposals do very little to address our social ills. The government appears to be focused on distractions and entertainment. Some 45 futsal pitches have been built in the islands, and Hollywood and Bollywood’s pop artists have been flown in for music shows. Malé is also being transformed with a new artificial beach, new parks, monuments, as well as the bridge to Hulhumalé.

The president recently declared that the US$200 million bridge would be a success if the youth population relocated to Hulhumalé’s Youth City.

This begs the question: why is the government spending millions on building sports fields on remote islands if his ultimate goal is for the Maldives’ islanders to relocate to Malé?

We do not talk about how relocation severs us from our environment. There is only one swimming area for more than 100,000 people in Malé. The track area is a health hazard, due to improper waste disposal and oil spills from the boats that share the lagoon. The air itself is polluted, from construction debris and smoke from water and power plants and the garbage island, Thilafushi.

Meanwhile, all of Malé atoll’s islands, and even its lagoons, have been leased for resort development. We, the people of the Maldives, are forced to use artificial beaches while tourists bask on our natural beaches.

What will happen to our islands when everyone moves to Hulhumalé? Will they be privatised and leased for tourism? Who will gain? Already some US$100 million is rumored to be missing from resort leases. Many of our ruling elite including ministers and MPs are rumoured to be the beneficiaries of both the embezzled funds and the resort leases.

Without political stability and the will to address social issues, the bridge and the youth city will only be monuments to the government’s failure to address the real problems.

Photo credit: Nattu Adnan

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