The Maldives is advertised globally as an idyllic holiday and honeymoon destination. But its people seldom access these picture-postcard perfect resorts unless they work on one or own it. Whatever natural beauty locals have left in this ‘paradise on earth’ faces destruction in the name of development.
Whether it is closing off a surfing spot to make way for a multimillion dollar bridge, razing mangroves or attempting to sell an entire atoll, President Abdulla Yameen’s government has come under fire for crowding people out with concrete.
The already-congested, almost oppressive, capital is an obstacle course of heavy machinery, dust and scaffolding. Neighbouring Hulhumalé is the scene of an ambitious resettlement project and all the construction, noise and pollution that such a proposal entails.
Lawyer and surfer Ahmed Amir* has spent most of the past four years at sea, taking a 20-minute ferry ride between the capital and Hulhumalé. He used to hang out at Raalhugandu in Malé.
“The entire outer road area used to be the best spot in town, starting from the tail of the artificial beach until Usfangandu. It was once the most happening part of the city,” he says referring to the long stretch on the capital’s southeast corner that looked out on to vibrant blue waves.
It featured a helipad, deserted sandy spots and swings. People would perch on the harbour wall edges, breathing in the salty breeze with their backs against the hot chaos behind them.
“The wide road and empty space was where we saw people doing their own thing, and where the art scene thrived with music shows and different events,” Amir recalls.
He used the ferry to travel back and forth for school and work. He says Hulhumalé became a weekend retreat for many in Malé in 2011, increasing the demand for the ferry service, because it was quieter and less built-up.
Soon, there will be a bridge that connects the capital with the airport and Hulhumalé.
“I wished there was a bridge sometimes on rough days, I think many who used the ferry did. Before they began construction work on the bridge, the Raalhugandu area used to be my ultimate escape spot especially after I moved to Malé. When I was studying law, I used to reward myself with hours at Raalhugandu after every lengthy assignment I completed.”
But most of the road leading to Raalhugandu and Usfansgandu is now closed to the public. Instead there are housing units for the Chinese labourers who are building the bridge and the tail-end of the artificial beach is opposite a land plot that belongs to Yameen.
“All we hear is the disruptive noise of the so-called development,” says Amir. “Sitting at what’s left of the area, from one side I hear the sound of construction work at the bridge and from the opposite corner I hear drilling as they build up the president’s land plot. Anywhere else that is left has been made into soccer pitches.
“Now, day or night, I ride around Malé on my bike in the smoky pollution and traffic. If I see a rare spot with shade during the day I go sit there. I need some space to take a break from the hectic city life, the crowded overpriced apartments filled with frustrated people, the loud noises of traffic, construction and pollution.
“I need space for balance to avoid feeling like I am becoming someone I cannot recognise because it is too loud for me to hear what I’m thinking,” he says.
Photographer Ali Fathih* has spent most of his 39 years in Malé and has witnessed the changes the capital has been through. He says the bridge will probably increase traffic and make Malé congestion worse.
“A fraction of the funds could have been used to improve ferry links between Malé, Hulhumalé and Hulhulé. The closing of these (open) areas together with other projects contribute to the worsening traffic congestion in Malé.
“Getting from point to point is difficult making daily routines longer. The lack of space makes escape from small living spaces impossible. This crammed island is being closed off. The whole of Malé is being surrounded by huge development projects that are closing up the little available breathing space left,” he says.
The Maldivian population is 338,434, of which almost 40 percent lives in a congested capital that measures 2.2 square miles.
It has been undergoing a face lift in the past few years with parks and pedestrianized zones in addition to upgrades to drainage, fire hydrants, pavements and disabled access. Around MVR219 million (US$14 million) has been allocated to projects such as a new artificial beach and an industrial village and waste yard harbour.
“While the islands remain undeveloped and lacking in basic services, the policy of forcing people to migrate to an already unbearable small space contributes to social problems,” says Fatih. “There is an increase in gang activity and other criminal activity to release frustrations or find shortcuts to afford ever increasing expenses.”
Meanwhile, Amir’s bigger worry is that every natural area is being replaced by concrete whereas spending could have been redirected towards waste management, rent caps or affordable healthcare.
“I think this is what is called distractive development. Because rather than trying to create areas that benefit all, the government hands these spaces to those close to them, for billions. The more frustrated we are about personal matters the less time we have to think about such things and what is being done to our country,” he says.
* Names have been changed
Photos: Auf Majeed