There is currently a heated debate in public spaces on and offline about the rights of people who are seen to be originally from Male’ (MM: Malé Meeha) versus people from the atolls (RT: Raajje There), especially those who have lived most of their lives in the capital.
This appears to be further widening the rift between these two groups of people when the actual responsibility for the divide may need to fall on the State and its centralization policies under successive administrations, rather than on the common people.
The concerns center around the concept of “permanent address” and people’s access to rights and benefits depending upon this address, which is often not their address of residence, nor has been for a long time.
The ongoing conversation is two-pronged; the right to vote for a constituency where one is a resident of, and the access to land ownership under the government’s housing schemes.
Controversy on the first issue arose primarily when some social media X users started circulating posts claiming that the Malé City Mayor position should be filled by “a Malé born, Malé bred son” elected by “Malé born people”.
This led to many residents from Malé who have permanent addresses elsewhere resurface concerns about having to vote for those constituencies, ultimately resulting in electing officials who do not truly represent them.
One such X user, @BoaSuv, ran a poll which got over 100 votes, where 52 percent felt that all Maldivians should be able to vote to elect Malé Mayor as all citizens should have a say in how the country’s capital is run.
The current administration’s housing scheme “Binveriya” (scheme to provide land in Greater Male’ area – translated as ‘Land owner’) and “Gedhoruveriya”, (‘Home owner’ – scheme to provide flats in Greater Male’ area), touted as a solution to the housing issues faced by Malé people, have given rise to widespread acrimony and allegations of systematic discrimination.
These issues have raised the question “Who is a Malé Meeha?”
The Binveriya scheme, a program introduced by the government to award land to Malé residents - defines Malé people as those “who have at no time been registered at an island other than Malé”.
An amendment was then added to this, stating that even if a person has been previously registered elsewhere, they are eligible for land if their mother or father is a Malé resident as defined before.
In contrast to this, Article 41 of the constitution clearly states that every citizen has the right to take up residence on any inhabited island and that they should then be granted equal access to all rights and benefits from that island.
Furthermore, Article 141(b) states that all Maldivian citizens should be given equal opportunity to apply for land or flats that are to be awarded.
Aiman Rasheed, with twenty years experience of working in civil society with a focus on decentralization, shared his views with The Edition.
“We have been seeing a decrease in Malé/Islander discrimination in these past ten years, with the integration of islanders in Malé and to an extent, vice versa.
The introduction of the Binveriya Scheme gave rise to the Malé/islander debate on who is worse off. The government created this division. The ramifications of this scheme will be felt for generations to come.
We are all Maldivians. These labels of Malé Meehaa/ RaajjeThere Meehaa should not exist now,” he said.
Speaking to The Edition, a staunch advocate of the #RiseRT movement, Sareera Ali Shareef, voiced out her outrage at what she claims to be “deliberate exclusion of people from the atolls who reside in Malé”.
“A large percentage of the national income is invested in developing Greater Malé area, this is money that rightfully belongs to all citizens of Maldives. Yet, we see the government and even some Malé people balking when people from the atolls who live here in Malé demand equal rights and opportunities.”
“In principle, #RiseRT retains that we cannot afford to be reclaiming more and more land and giving it away. It is neither environmentally sustainable nor practically feasible to treat that as a solution to our housing concerns,” Sareera said.
“But if the government insists on giving away land, it should be done in an equitable manner, on a needs basis, and not in a way that generates geo-discrimination. It makes no sense for landlords to get even more land to generate income from, while the people perpetually living in rent is denied even the chance to apply”.
Aiman echoed these views, adding “We are going through our entire lives being treated as second class citizens. If land is to be given, it should be done so with a view towards addressing social vulnerability”.
A recipient of land under the Binveriya scheme, Mohamed Faisal, said, “It is a huge relief to finally have a place to call my own. I am thankful for the scheme. But I want to stress that I believe land should be given equitably to everyone, including people from the islands who have made their homes here in Malé with us. Land in any island of Maldives needs to be granted to any citizen residing there, regardless of which island they are registered to.”
According to the 2022 census, 41 percent of the resident population of Maldives live in Malé.
However, when it comes to electing parliament members and councilors, a vast majority of these people are required to vote not for their resident constituency, but to whichever island they happen to have their permanent address registered at.
Many people claim they have never lived at their permanent address, nor have a stake in the affairs of said island.
“This isn’t just an issue of over half of the residents being disenfranchised from voting in Malé, it’s also an issue of people who don’t live in some islands deciding the outcome of the election in the island,” @BoaSuv shared.
Aiman said that this results in peoples’ disenfranchisement from the democratic system itself, as “RT people living in Malé effectively have no one to represent them” either in parliament or councils.
Responding to public queries on this matter on X, Chairman of the Elections Commission Fuad Thaufeeq said that the commission has been raising this issue with different members of parliament since 2009. He noted this was most important in the case of local council elections.
Another group of people who lack representation are those registered to Male’ ‘Dhaftharu’. Dhaftharu is the Malé Municipality Special Register, initially for Malé persons who did not have a house in Malé to be registered to. Later on, people from the atolls who move to Malé were also included in the register after five years of residence in the capital.
“Everyone besides the people on Dhaftharu are aware of their own constituencies. Yet in our case, for every election we are randomly assigned to different Malé constituencies. I voted for Hulhumalé last time, I could be assigned anywhere in the next election. There is simply no sense of belonging,” Sareera said.
She inferred that this contributes to such people ending up not turning up to vote, as they feel the result would have no impact on their own lives. She also alleged that this practice opens up an opportunity for any incumbent government to manipulate the voters list to benefit them.
The current ruling party Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih came to power with promises of decentralization under the “Jazeera Raajje” slogan.
In June 2022, president Solih’s administration has seen the establishment of Raajje Transport Link (the National Ferry System), which has proved effective in providing affordable and consistent travel between atolls.
President Solih referred to it as “the backbone of the decentralization we want”, stating it aimed to eradicate social and economic isolation of island communities.
In his first media appearance after his defeat in the presidential election held last month, president Solih stated that one of his administrations’ achievements was ensuring provision of essential services in a large number of islands, regardless of its size.
He said that he undertook the development of island communities in the spirit of decentralization, even while realizing the effort may not be a vote-winner in itself.
In spite of this, some of the other projects put forth by the government seem to encourage further centralization of the Greater Malé area. The Gedhoruveriya and Binveriya schemes alone create further accommodation in this region, while ignoring the development of regional hubs, which will then force more people to migrate to the capital in search of better opportunities and living standards.
“What is disappointing is that this government came into place with the ‘Jazeera Raajje’ vision, but has ended up spearheading the largest centralization project this country has seen,” Aiman said.