The government of the Maldives has defended its refusal to divulge details on how the flats, developed under its first social housing project, were distributed amongst applicants, subsequently sparking public outrage and allegations of major graft involved.
In 2014, over 15,000 people had applied to buy flats from the government’s first social housing project in reclaimed suburb Hulhumale. After a long wait of more than three years, the Ministry of Housing and Infrastructure finally announced 661 applicants who are confirmed to receive flats last week Monday. In its notice, the ministry stated that 500 individuals will receive flats from Category 1, while another 161 are to receive from Category 2.
However, in an unprecedented move unseen in the housing projects of previous governments, the ministry withheld all personal information of the recipients including their names and addresses, instead revealing only the identification numbers of their application forms. The housing ministry also did not explain how points were allocated for the applicants to determine flat recipients, resulting in outrage as people called out on the lack of transparency in the distribution procedure.
“Protecting the rights of all” - housing minister maintains silence
Following the first wave of public ire after the announcement, Housing Minister Dr Mohamed Muizz defended the move last week, claiming that the government decided to withhold personal information of flat recipients to protect the rights of both those who received flats and those that did not.
He reiterated his argument on Monday, in a press conference highly anticipated by people anxiously awaiting an explanation regarding the housing project. However, the minister did not offer any details on how points were allocated during his 30-minute address, nor did he respond to repeated questions by the press regarding the ministry’s refusal to explain the points system, which was the major deciding factor in distributing the flats.
Instead, Minister Muizzu maintained that personal information was not revealed to protect the rights of all involved, instead assuring the people that no unjust practices took place in the distribution.
“…it is one’s own right; other people do not need to know whether that person received a flat,” he said as he repeatedly declared that the ministry has no plans to release a new list of recipients detailing their points.
“Ruling party supporters handpicked for flats?” – rumours abound as citizens seethe
After the housing ministry opened its doors for citizens to file their complaints regarding the flats, people continued to flock to the ministry until the deadline this Sunday.
The majority of complaints predictably dealt with the lack of transparency in distributing flats, with people demanding explanations on how points were allocated. Amongst the complaints rose a rumour of the government awarding flats specifically for the people who support ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). Alleging that the campaign office of President Abdulla Yameen had contacted and collected information of some applicants, they accused the ministry of withholding flats from people who voiced dissatisfaction with the current administration. Similar rumours soon took over social media platforms.
However, the housing ministry has refuted these speculations.
“Nothing done outside of the ministry” – minister shoots down public buzz
Speaking at Monday’s press conference, Housing Minister Muizzu hit back at the rumours accusing President Yameen’s campaign office, which is managed by First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim, of influencing flat distributions.
In response to reporters' questions regarding these rumours, the minister declared that they were baseless and false. He asserted that all aspects of the housing project and flat distribution were overseen by the ministry without any outside hands in it.
He added that as the housing ministry carries out all of its tasks within the ministry’s mandate, there is no reason to speculate that the first lady was involved.
“Points on slip not your final marks” – minister defends distribution
Ranking high among the public’s complaints is alleged cases of people with over 80 or 90 points failing to qualify for flats, whereas the housing ministry is said to have confirmed flats for applicants who received much lower points.
Following a reporter’s inquiry regarding these claims at Monday’s press conference, Housing Minister Muizzu irately replied that he is saddened by all the misinformation spread among the public.
The minister proclaimed that, unlike previous governments, the current administration evaluated all the application forms thrice, in addition to dispatching ministry teams to applicants’ residences to glean firsthand information on their current living conditions. He added that if the ministry had missed any residence or household, then it was due to not receiving any responses despite the ministry’s repeated attempts to contact them for visits.
Dr Muizzu then proclaimed that the surveys conducted by the ministry’s teams revealed that some applicants had submitted false information in their application forms to earn points. As examples, he noted that some people with two-room apartments had lied about living in a single room, while some had lied about living with their parents, or listed stepchildren as blood-related.
Thus, the ministry had added or subtracted marks for applicants depending on their true living conditions, said the minister. He added that the initial marks, on the slips given to applicants upon submitting their application forms, were not set in stone, and that the slips clearly mentioned that the marks were subject to change based on living conditions.
Hence, the minister stressed that, taking all circumstances into account, the flats were distributed to the applicants most deserving of the flats.
“Deceit and corruption” – opposition heads public uproar
The opposition coalition was quick to pounce on the issue, declaring on Monday that the government has violated the rights of people by withholding the recipients’ information and point system. It alleged that deceit and corruption were involved in the housing ministry’s handling of the project, and is thus the reason for all the secrecy.
The mayor of capital Male, Shifa Mohamed, told the press in an opposition's briefing that the housing ministry’s press conference earlier that day further cemented suspicions of graft involved in flat distribution. She also accused Housing Minister Muizzu of borderline laying blame on poor citizens, who applied for flats, with his words.
“The solution is to reveal all the names; there is no escape by hiding them away,” she said as she called on the government to divulge the personal information of recipients.
Meanwhile, the former housing minister of main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)’s regime, Mohamed Aslam, highlighted that previous governments had all revealed the details of flat recipients in their social housing projects.
“A person can only truly file a complaint when they are able to compare the marks they received with another person’s,” he pointed out.
Aslam, along with the joint opposition’s spokesperson, Galolhu South MP Ahmed Mahloof, urged the government to at least reveal the points earned by the recipients if not their names.
MP Mahloof harshly criticized the housing minister, describing the issue as the most corrupted case of social housing in the Maldives to date.
Mahloof and Shifa also called on independent institutions to investigate the issue for corruption.
Meanwhile, the case has been filed at the Anti-Corruption Committee last week. According to the graft watchdog, the complaints highlighted the injustice of the government withholding information of the recipients, points, and reasons for disqualifying other applicants from receiving the flats.