The People’s Majlis broke for recess two weeks early on Wednesday after working overtime to pass a new construction law.
The construction bill was introduced, debated, reviewed by a committee, and passed on the same day. Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed scheduled a sitting at night to vote on the bill after it was debated and accepted for consideration at the normal sitting in the morning.
In between sittings, the national security committee approved the bill at a 30-minute meeting and sent it back to the floor. The bill was then passed with 44 votes from ruling coalition lawmakers without any opposition MPs of the 85-member house in attendance.
Opposition MPs had also walked out of the committee meeting Wednesday afternoon after a proposal by MP Ali Nizar of the Maldivian Democratic Party to restrict fines to a minimum MVR5,000 (US$324) for first-time offenders was rejected by the pro-government majority.
“This industry is not at all ready for such a sudden, big change. For a group that is not used to working within any legal constraints, it would be a catastrophe,” Nizar said.
The committee, however, reduced the hefty fines in the bill after opposition lawmakers warned that the law would “bankrupt” small and medium-sized business in the construction sector.
The original draft proposed fines between MVR5,000 and MVR1 million (US$64,850) for failure to obtain permits for construction or repair work, but the committee limited the fines to a maximum of MVR500,000 (US$32,425).
The media was not notified about the hastily arranged committee meeting and stakeholders were not consulted.
The committee also revised the bill to exempt single-floor buildings and buildings not exceeding four meters in the atolls from needing to secure permits.
The bill mandates the enactment of a long-awaited building code, the lack of which was highlighted after several fires in the densely-packed capital in recent years.
But the proposed law would not apply to construction in islands and lagoons leased for tourism. Last year, the Maldives Industry for Tourism Industry, an influential lobby group representing Maldivian resort owners, urged the housing ministry to exempt the resort sector from a proposed construction law.
The present building code under the tourism regulation is adequate for the industry, the group had insisted.
The previous construction bill was unanimously rejected by the parliament in November.
The government-sponsored legislation was resubmitted earlier this month without substantial changes.
Housing Minister Dr Muiz meanwhile described the passage of the new bill as “historic work done by the Majlis.” The bill would greatly improve and benefit the economy and companies in the booming construction industry, he told state media last week.
With the tourism industry underperforming, the construction industry has been the main driver of economic growth in the past two years, during which the sector has registered 20 percent annual growth.
Speaking to the Maldives Independent, Mohamed Ishan, an architect, questioned the decision to exempt the resort industry.
“That is ridiculous. Why must they have a different building code? Are they a different level of people needing a different level of safety standards?” he asked.
But Ishan stressed the need for “an independent oversight body that would take legal responsibility in assigning professional liabilities and ensuring public safety.”
The lack of a building code has left “a gap in ensuring a safe built environment for the public and a construction industry where professional liabilities remain ambiguous,” he said.
Once ratified, the law calls for the formation of a seven-member Maldives Building and Construction Board, an advisory body that would function under the housing ministry to enforce the law and formulate rules and regulations.
The bill states that board members must include experts from the construction industry, legal professionals and ministry officials. The president will appoint members and determine their salaries and privileges.
“The technical person is the filter between liabilities and public safety. If technical members are appointed by the president or Minister Muizzu, the person may indeed be a technical expert, but they could be subject to influence, they are not answerable to others in the industry or the public,” said Ishan.
“What we are advocating for is that the technical person should be a representation of an association of peers.”