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Need for new schools in Malé reignites decentralisation debate

The education minister denied plans to build 10 more schools in the capital after headlines to the contrary drew a backlash.



The education minister unwittingly sparked a public outcry last week against policies that drive migration to the overcrowded capital island, where thousands live in slum-like conditions and pay exorbitant rents.  

On Tuesday, Dr Aishath Ali denied plans to build more schools in Malé after media reports to the contrary drew a backlash. She appeared on Raajje TV and explained that an audit has shown 10 new schools were needed to change the capital’s 13 schools to single-session.  

Headlines about 10 new schools prompted questions over the commitment to pursue decentralisation as pledged by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, whose Jazeera Raajje (Island Nation) campaign slogan sought to draw a contrast between the previous administration’s goal of consolidating 70 percent of the population in the Greater Malé region.  

On social media, many people shared stories of abandoning their island homes and migrating to Malé due to the substandard schools and health centres in the atolls.

“Two decades since we left to Malé for education and healthcare, yet in many ways these issues remain the same in our island. Sure now you can study up to 10th grade but every year parents send their children to Malé for A levels. Unreliable, low quality healthcare is the norm,” reads a widely shared post on Twitter.

“The system is designed so people have to move to Malé. Live generation after generation in this vicious cycle of ‘work’, ‘pay rent’, die,” a Twitter user wrote.

“After going to school for a single session, families will sleep on two sessions, kids will do homework in the kitchen and sleep in the sitting room,” wrote another, referring to many families that share small rooms.

The controversy came just day after President Solih blamed regional disparities and congestion in the capital on years of Malé-centric policies.

At a national symposium for city and atoll councils, Solih criticised amendments brought to the 2010 decentralisation law that restricted powers of local councils. He pledged to devolve more powers and ensure financial autonomy.

Speaking to the Maldives Independent, Salma Fikry, a long-time advocate for decentralisation, questioned whether legal changes to empower local councils alone could achieve results. 

“If decentralisation is the policy, all the government policies, budget and laws should be made towards that policy,” she said.

A “more holistic approach” reflected in all sectors was needed, she argued.

“It’s not just the schools issue. A port is being built in Thilafushi, a sea port is being built in Gulhi Falhu and a bridge would be needed to connect them [to Malé]. And add the costs of building basically another city like Hulhumalé phase two. All this is going towards more centralisation.”

As 7,000 families are expected to settle in the second phase landmass reclaimed in Hulhumalé – a new urban centre under development near the capital – Fikry noted that more schools would need to be built.

“Just changing schools to single sessions will not ensure a healthy upbringing for the children. Kids are living in very dire conditions, sleeping in the same room as their parents and family. In these conditions, no amount of single session schools will give the children a healthy upbringing,” she contended. 

“I don’t see the current government policies and the [Maldivian Democratic Party’s] Agenda 19 policies making things decentralised. I see islands becoming ghost islands with more people moving to capital. There is a pull factor to bring people to the central area and no push factor to incentivise people to return to their homes.”

– Single-session schools –

Changing all schools to a single morning session was also a campaign pledge. Conducting an audit was among targets set for the first 60 days of the new administration.

In her Raajje TV appearance, Education Minister Dr Aishath Ali explained that the student population needs to be limited to a maximum of 1,000 for proper management.

“There are a lot of people in Malé. We cannot downsize the existing schools and tell the people already here to go back to their islands, that can’t happen. We have to find opportunities for them too. We have to talk about this more to find what is the best way to do this,” she said.

She took note of President Solih’s declaration earlier this month that his administration would not build more infrastructure in Malé.

“We will move forward with the government’s policy and president’s decision. We will find a way to solve this,” she said.

Presenting the findings of the schools audit last Monday, Deputy Education Minister Sharma Naseer said MVR2.39 billion (US$155 million) would be needed to implement the single-session policy.

This includes 288 additional classrooms, 44 science labs, 28 libraries, 42 AV rooms, 57 mess rooms, 22 staff, and in the case of the Malé area, 10 more schools.

Schools in the atolls could be expanded to add capacity but since Malé schools lack space, “the only solution is to build more schools.”

The following account of a migrant to Malé was widely shared on social media:

Most of my elder siblings moved to Malé in early 1990s for studies since education was only available up to 7th grade in our island. They stayed in different houses in Malé, doing domestic chores while studying. Both of my brothers quit schooling before 10th grade.

My father was a seaman and already based in Malé, and my mother moved to Malé with my little sister in early 1995 mainly to get treatment for chronic health issues. One of my sisters and I would be the last out of the eight children to be moved to Malé for studies.

In the coming decade we would move to six different houses in Malé as tenants, spending nearly all of our income to pay rent. My parents would do back breaking work (quite literally since my father suffered from temporary paralysis due to a spinal injury at work) to provide for us.

They would try their best to ensure we had a good education though my sister and I went to a fee paying [ward] school (back then if you migrate to Malé, you can only go to public school if you join grade one or eight). Only one of my six elder siblings would be able to complete high school.

At school, I would be among the few students who lived with parents. Almost all my classmates were living in different houses in Malé, and would often fall asleep in class after a tiring night of cleaning, baby sitting, and cooking. Stories of child abuse were not uncommon.

My mom would make hedhika [short eats] while looking after eight children to support my father who was paid a bare minimum wage for his labour. They would struggle to pay our school fees, exam fees and ensuring our safety in a city that was increasingly getting more congested and unsafe.

My sister and I would get scholarships to study abroad – a rare privilege back then for students who went to avashu [ward] schools. I would become the first out of eight siblings to complete my degree although I am the second youngest.

To this day we are stuck in this vicious cycle of ‘Work Hard’ ‘Pay Rent’ & ‘Die’. Despite all of us working for nearly all of our adult life, we do not have any savings. Despite having lived all of our life in Malé, we can’t vote here or afford to have a house here.

After 20 years since we left our island, my mother’s house where we grew up was in complete ruins, stopping us from the possibility of moving back. My parents are nearly 70 and my father’s plot of land still remains, with no hopes of being able to build a home in his lifetime.

Mid-last year with the support of well-wishing family members we have started to renovate our island home as my parents really want to move back to our island, now that the last of their children, my little sister, will be completing her degree this year.

The stress of living in Malé with all the congestion & pollution is exacerbated by the fact that we have to constantly worry about finding a place we can afford to live. Work becomes meaningless when paycheck after paycheck after paycheck has to be transferred to the landlord.

Moving back to the island has been our wish for as long as we have been forced to migrate here. Constantly nostalgic for our childhood days in our beautiful island home with a yard full of hibiscus, pomegranate, java apple, stone apple, and countless number of banana and palm trees.

And yet for most of my siblings moving back is not an easy option especially since they have children who have no sense of belonging to our island, have to think about providing the best education for them and finding work in the island worries them.

Two decades since we left to Malé for education and health care, yet in many ways these issues remain the same in our island. Sure now you can study up to 10th grade but every year parents send their children to Malé for A levels. Unreliable, low quality healthcare is the norm.

It will take 24 years since my family moved to Malé for our island to get a sewerage system. A sewerage system! yayy. We are supposed to feel grateful for this ‘development’ with our politicians bewildered if we do not constantly praise and bow them.

This year, and the next year and the next decade more and more families like mine would be forced to move to Malé since every single government we have had promotes centralisation. PR like ‘Jazeera Raajje’ is meaningless when action shows you prioritise profit over people.

Every time someone talks about providing services in islands or highlight systematic discrimination faced by migrants, someone will say it’s not “feasible” to develop islands. Meaning it’s not profitable to their pockets to provide essential services to other islands.

Every single government has championed commodification of essential services such as housing, healthcare, and education. They all believe in neoliberal trickle down economics. Enriching themselves first and giving away peanuts to the rest of us, on their own terms.

They don’t see any irony when they claim to simultaneously work to reduce inequality while promoting privatisation of essential services. How does one promote equality while developing luxury housing, private schools and hospitals for the wealthy?

The issues we face cannot be solved by their trickle down mentality or their philanthropy or their CSR projects. We need an economic system that is democratically works for all of us, and not just a few tycoons: the root cause of all of these issues.

We cannot unlink centralisation from capitalism. The reason why our tax money is being invested in Greater Malé is to ensure capitalists can maximise their profit. Centralisation is a way to secure their capital by investing in infrastructure that expands their businesses.

Despite many of us living in slum-conditions, luxury housing projects are promoted by our politicians who believe in “market solutions”. They know real-estate is big money.They know centralisation is key for this. Empty flats for the rich while the rest of us are stuck in cages.

It is no longer ‘feasible’ for us to just let them rule and enrich themselves while we are stuck doing miserable work only to pay rent and die. We need to change the way politics is practiced in this country.We need to set the agenda and it will be on our own terms.