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Paradise overcrowded; the other side of Maldives

A look at the severity of congestion in Male', its widespread impacts on the lives of ordinary people, and the government's responsibility to provide an answer to the question the capital city has been asking for decades.

Mariyam Malsa
30 October 2018, MVT 08:04
Aerial view of Male City, the capital island of Maldives. PHOTO/SHAHEE ILYAS
Mariyam Malsa
30 October 2018, MVT 08:04

In October 2018, the symptoms of a severe social epidemic began to manifest outside government buildings in capital Male’.

First, it was a haphazard queue outside the Ministry of Housing and Infrastructure. The people in line were desperate enough to go without food or sleep for hours just to submit an application form. The government had recently released 400 plots of land for sale in the reclaimed suburb of Hulhumale’.

Affordable housing is a basic right. Therefore, the level of desperation where an 84-year-old man would stay in queue until 2 a.m. for a slim chance of being allowed to buy an apartment is undeniable proof of a catastrophic issue.

If this were not enough, a more serious symptom manifested outside the Supreme Court on October 14, when a crowd of people protesting against a completely separate and arguably more appalling issue, turned their attention towards Dr. Mohamed Muizzu, the Minister of Housing and Infrastructure.

President Abdulla Yameen and his bid to nullify the third ever democratic election of Maldives, which he had incidentally lost, were completely forgotten as the housing minister came under fire for misconduct in distributing the aforementioned flats in Hulhumale'.

What may come as a surprise to millions of tourists who visit 'paradise', is an unpleasant fact of life for over 100,000 Maldivians; the capital of paradise is congested.

The troubling demography of a tropical democracy

The total population of Maldives is a mere 427,756, making it the smallest country in Asia in terms of both area and population.

In theory, the small figure should pave the way for an easier journey to economic development for Maldives, which has a healthy GDP per capita of $13,196.

In reality, however, the Maldives is also one of the world’s most geographically dispersed countries. The population is spread across 192 islands which are separated from each other by the ocean.

The diminutive nature of each island must also be taken into account.

The largest area of dry land in the country measures merely 18 km in length and even then, the area, located in Laamu Atoll, consists of five separate islands connected by causeway.

As expected, each island can only support a proportional number of people, and establishing schools, hospitals and other facilities in each and every island would require the duplication of resources. The most economically sensible option was to focus investment into regions which already contained high populations and encouraging people to move there.

Again, in theory, this approach had economic merit. In practice, however, it created a jarring disparity between islands which don't have proper sewerage systems and polished urban centres, the most notable of which is the capital, Male’.

High rates of rural-urban migration occurred as people in underdeveloped islands had few choices but moving to Male’ if they wanted to improve their standard of living. This leads to decreasing populations in certain islands and population growth in Male’.

Uncontrolled population growth has had cataclysmic impacts on the capital and the one-third of the population which live in it.

Long queues in front of the Ministry of Housing and Infrastructure as people wait in line to submit application forms for Hulhumale Phase Two flats. PHOTO/MIHAARU

Welcome to the capital!

Male’ holds incredible historic and economic value. The island has been the seat of the Maldivian government for all of recorded history up to the present day. As the administrative centre of the nation, Male’ hosts nearly all of the critical government buildings, including the ministries, the President's Office, the Police Headquarters and foreign embassies. In addition, Male' also contains the country's most advanced schools and hospitals compared to sub-par facilities in other atolls.

As a result of the aforementioned factors, Male' now has a staggering population density of over 23,000 per square kilometre. Aerial photographs of the heavily urbanised city show virtually no greenery, a stark comparison to images captured as little as twenty years ago. However, aesthetic pitfalls are far from the most concerning problems with accommodating the needs of over 100,000 people within 1.9 square kilometres of space.

Uncontrolled urbanisation has made Male’ a city where graveyards are next to busy roads, government buildings next to modest one-storey homes, and convenience stores in front of 5-star hotels; there is little to no use of zoning. Residential, commercial and institutional land use occur in close proximity, with numerous disadvantages.

Traffic congestion is also a worsening issue in Male’. Motorcycles are preferred over cars and trucks due to the fact that the average road width is below four metres. In 2015, it was estimated that there were more than 68,000 motorcycles in Male’, which take up more than one square kilometre of space. As expected there is only a limited area available for parking; a line of parked motorcycles flank the sides of Majeedhee Magu, the main road that bisects the capital in half. This, in addition to over 5,000 cars, exerts immense pressure on roads as it leaves less than half a square kilometre of space for pedestrians. Hence, the roads of the capital are prone to gridlock.

A struggling waste management system makes matters worse for Male’ which is choked with varying levels of litter. Some roads are covered with cigarette butts and food wrappers while piles of discarded construction materials remain on other corners.

Although these physical implications are pressing, the brunt of issues created by congestion is felt by the resident population of Male'.

A socio-economic disaster

Housing is perhaps the key factor which underpins the complex web of social issues in Male’. About 63% of households in Male’ live on rent. The combination of extremely high rental rates and low average income helps explain the events of October.

The high proportion of income households spend on housing reduces the amount that can be used on education. While many move to Male’ to attain a quality education, the vast majority of government schools only teach up to O’ Level standard. This lays an additional financial burden on families, which often have no choice but to take loans to fund education for their sons and daughters. The cost of higher education severely affects youth in an economy where a degree may only guarantee a job which pays MVR 10,000, an amount insufficient to cover the cost of living in Male’.

The inefficiencies of the healthcare system also contribute to social issues in the capital. The pursuit of efficient healthcare is another main reason why people move to Male’. However, there are only two main hospitals that provide Aasandha, the government-funded national healthcare scheme. Even then, only services provided by Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH), the state-run hospital, are fully covered.

These financial difficulties take a serious toll on families in the Maldives, which is sometimes referred to as ‘the divorce capital of the world’. Financial difficulties contribute to the break-up of numerous families, which in turn affects children who had arguably poor prospects in the first place. Child abuse is a serious and often unaddressed issue in the Maldives, as is gender-based violence.

Broken homes, among other factors, contribute to gang violence, one of the most appalling issues in the capital city. A 14-year-old was stabbed to death in Male’ recently and this is only one among many violent clashes that made it to the headlines this past October. Several victims are still recuperating in IGMH and privately run ADK Hospital.

All these socio-economic disasters have a dire impact on the mental health of Male’ residents. Despite increasing awareness regarding the issue, the healthcare system is ill-equipped to tackle the demand. In some cases, the waiting list for psychiatrists numbers in the hundreds. In addition to this, psychological services are not covered by Aasandha.

Majeedhee Magu, the main road which bisects Male City, blocked on both sides by traffic. PHOTO/MIHAARU

Epidemiology; who's at higher risk?

While no one is free from the implications of social issues in Male’, they do not affect everyone equally.

The top 2% of the population which earn incomes of more than MVR 20,000 are the most well off. This group generally comprises people who own property in Male'.

There is a history of discrimination between the original residents of Male’ and migrants from other atolls, with slurs such as 'raajjethere meedha’ (literally translates to ‘island rat’), still used as insults. Virtually all migrants live on rent, with some families forced to live in a single room which serves as the kitchen, bedroom and living room.

However, it must be noted that the distinctions between migrants and residents are not always clear. The amount of land owned by families vary and the size of individual land plots decrease generation by generation as the property is divided between multiple heirs. Moreover, not having to pay rent does not negate all the other social issues in Male’.

Expatriate workers are at the very bottom rung of the social ladder. They are frequently considered second-class citizens. Many foreign workers are contracted as cheap labour for construction, hospitality or the retail industry. These people are looked down upon while they work menial jobs for low pay and live in appalling conditions. In some cases, 10 expatriate workers share a single room.

Despite all the factors which affect exactly how and to what extent people are plagued, the mathematical odds are not in our favour.

"The capital city is not congested"

Although the government has made several attempts to tackle overcrowding in Male’, a simple walk along the city is enough to prove that more needs to be done.

The recent outrage over the probable corruption in the sale of flats from Hulhumale’s Phase Two is only one minor example of this inefficient approach.

Although several of President Yameen's economic reforms increased the availability of services in other islands, this will only work to reduce further rural-urban migration and does not solve the issues faced by the resident population, many of whom have lived in Male’ for decades and consider it home.

One major barrier to effectively tackling the problems of the capital can be summed up in a statement delivered by President Yameen at a launching ceremony of a book on national developments. Standing in front of a crowd, President Yameen boldly stated that, “The capital city is not congested."

Despite these assertions, congestion in Male' is an undeniable fact backed by statistical information. Congestion issues faced by Male’ and the rest of the country by extension are unique due to the geographical makeup of Maldives and must be considered at the policy-making level. Therefore this outright denial is symptomatic of an inefficient approach to a severe issue.

The population of Maldives is expected to hit one million by the year 2054. The government must ask whether Male' can sustain such immense pressure, including Hulhumale' and Villimale’ which are now considered administrative divisions of Male'. There is only a certain level of development a piece of land less than six square kilometres can take, and a short walk in the city will prove that it has already been reached.

View of Male City from the rooftop of Dharumavantha Hospital. PHOTO/MIHAARU

The way forward

It is clear that the government must provide a sustainable solution which takes into account the unique causes and nature of problems, in addition to projected levels of growth.

While there are numerous potential solutions, any truly successful approach must simultaneously diffuse mounting socio-economic problems in Male’ while cutting down the rates of rural-urban migration by ensuring sufficient access to basic facilities across the rest of the country.

Whatever method is chosen, any government voted into power owes it to all the people who fell in love on the streets of Male’, to work for and commit to a solution that serves everyone whose lives are intertwined with this flawed but crucial city that they call home.

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