The Maldives United Opposition, a coalition of parties in the political opposition, has launched a series of protests across the country to get the government reinstate subsidies on staple food prices.
At a rally held at the Carnival grounds in Malé on Friday, Imthiaz Fahmy, a spokesman for the Maldivian Democratic Party, said the protests at the capital and other islands will only escalate if the government did not roll back the subsidy cuts.
Earlier in the day, there were protests held at Addu city and several atolls including Gaafu Alifu, Thaa, Laamu, Kaafu, Baa and Haa Dhaalu. People carried banners and raised slogans accusing the government of forcing people to go hungry.
Prices for food staples had doubled overnight on October 1, stoking anger against a government that is already besieged over human rights abuses and a historic corruption scandal worth US$80million.
A kilo of rice, which previously cost MVR3.98 is now sold at MVR7.96. The price of sugar has been revised from MVR4.5 to MVR8 per kilo, and flour, earlier sold at MVR3.5 per kilo, now costs MVR5.96.
Speaking at the Malé rally, Adhaalath Party’s vice president Ali Zahir said that the food price hike was proof of the extent to which President Abdulla Yameen had mismanaged the economy.
“President Yameen labels himself as an economist, but the country has been bankrupted by this regime,” he said, demanding that the president step down from his office.
Adam Thowfeeq, deputy minister at the economic ministry, said that the hike was set because those receiving a majority of the food subsidies were migrant workers, not its “rightful beneficiaries”.
Statistics from the department of national planning in 2012 showed that the country had nearly 116,000 migrant workers, mainly from Bangladesh (57%), India (23%) and Sri Lanka (10%).
The government reportedly spends nearly MVR300million (US$19.5million) on food subsidies every year. “We were previously selling staples at prices reduced by 25-30%,” said Adam.
He added that economically disadvantaged Maldivians will receive cash handouts to buy food through the National Social Protection Agency.
According to the NSPA rules published in March, individuals and households classified as ‘needy’ are entitled to monthly subsidies of MVR40 (US$2.6) and MVR240 (US$15.6) respectively. The criteria used by NSPA to measure poverty is not clear.
The hike in food prices dominated the first day of Parliament, held on Thursday after a month-long recess.
Leaked screenshots from a conversation between the president and the ruling party MPs on the instant messaging app ‘Viber’ showed several Parliamentarians criticising the government for the price hike.
Ibrahim Didi, the PPM MP from southern Addu City, called the food subsidy cut as a “gift to the opposition”.
Didi’s message read: “I am not able to walk the streets because of what the people are saying. Electricity prices went up yesterday, today it is food. I have nothing more to say.”
Messages sent by Asma Rasheed, MP from Malé, read: “I will publicly take a stand against it even if I were to do so alone. Food was subsidised here even when there were no taxes.”
In his defense, the president said he had no choice. His message reads: “MPs can clarify their doubts with the government. I too want the public’s support and votes. I am saddened.”
The hike in food prices follows the finance ministry’s announcement of a host of austerity measures to rein in a deficit that is expected to expand to 13.3% of the GDP amid a reported slowdown in the tourism sector.