In the congested, bustling city of Male’, a place where there is no more space for fruitful development, new buildings are under construction each day. For ages, the public has been raising concerns about the misconduct and safety issues regarding poorly managed and monitored sites, even though with passing time the number of hazardous incidents and near-death experiences has only gotten progressively worse, and more frequent.
In this city where concrete and chaos go hand in hand, seemingly everywhere you look an accident is waiting to happen.
Worn out concrete sheets that occasionally drizzle dust on top of tenants’ heads and walls decorated with cracks are a common occurrence in most Male’ households. Tenants are forced to live in these cramped compartments a few seconds away from falling apart, due to financial difficulties and unavailability of affordable housing.
Labourers and construction workers that actively offer quick fix-ups for weathered down homes express their concern at the poor living conditions faced by tenants. People living in these risk-filled homes experience a large range of difficulties, from leaking taps to the ever-present fear of concrete sections falling on their heads.
However, most homeowners are reluctant to demolish their houses and rebuild, due to high construction costs and the lack of income in the form of rent money, leaving the helpless tenants stuck in a defenceless situation.
It is when no further repair is possible that houses are usually evacuated, sometimes just hours before demolition commences. Buildings in unsafe conditions are typically rented out for cheaper rates, which provides an option for low-income families to live in the city. They accept the poor conditions as an unavoidable compromise for the slightly smaller sum of rent money, subjecting themselves to a precarious environment where disaster could strike any moment, and hope for the best.
The danger is that lack of affordable housing in the capital pushes people into desperation up to the point where they are willing to risk their own lives as well as that of their children, struggling for education, jobs and health services that their islands cannot provide.
In this manner, the system is not just punishment for locals, but even more so for the expatriate workers that migrated here for work. Foreign workers are exploited for maximum labour while being paid a minimum wage and forced to live in barbaric conditions.
Expat labourers working in construction seldom work under safety guidelines and are almost never given safety equipment and gear. Due to this, many expats have suffered numerous injuries, some ending up crippled, and in a few cases, dead.
In recent years, the construction sector in Maldives saw rapid development. However, most construction companies do not follow standard safety procedures, partly due to negligence, and partly due to the lack of a government body to monitor and enforce safety rules.
Popular opinion is that administrative bodies recently stirred into action only as a result of the death of Rawshan Jian, a 9-year-old Bangladeshi girl who was hit with a bag of cement that fell down from a construction site on December 16, 2018.
Following this incident, several lawyers filed a Public Interest Litigation case calling to enact all the regulations required under the Construction Act and to enforce the Male' Planning Regulation.
Local law firm Riza, Shafneez & Co drew attention to the government’s failure to enact the regulations under the Construction Act. The 14 pending regulations include the Building Code, which outlines a set of safety measures with the aim of reducing the number of accidents. The law firm highlighted that neglecting to enforce the safety measures stated in the Male’ Planning Regulation was a violation of various Articles in the Constitution, including Article 21: 'Right to life'.
Hawwa Shafeea Riza, the managing partner of Riza, Shafneez & Co, said that “enforcement is inadequate”, further emphasising that the incident occurred “as a result of poor safety controls".
After the incident, Male’ City Council temporarily halted the issuing of construction permits, which received much backlash from the construction industry.
“Punishing all construction companies for the mistakes of a few is not a solution. A solution would be to have a set of safety rules that are monitored by a government body. We need better rules, and the rules should apply to everyone. Everyone should be the same in front of the law. It only works if there is no corruption involved,” Ali Manik, the Managing Director of TEP Construction, told The Edition regarding the recent events.
Additionally, Male’ City Council also called for locals to help them identify any unsafe sites located in Male’, and the suburbs of Hulhumale’ and Vilimale'.
Upon this request, the public flooded social media with pictures and video footage of several problematic construction sites and other hazardous accidents waiting to happen in the city.
Some people even compared the construction sites of local companies to those of foreign investments ongoing in Male’ and Hulhumale’, noting that the scaffolding in local companies were in poorer condition, appearing to have been put up for show rather than safety.
“Most companies want to gain maximum profit, so they do not want to spend money on implementing safety measures. They take the risk, and when an incident does not happen the first time, they take the same risk the second time. People only realize the danger of doing this when a major incident occurs,” speculated Ali Manik, whose company has been in operation for 23 years.
“We’re lucky that there haven’t been more incidents with the way things are done around here,” he added.
Civilians have raised numerous issues regarding the poor construction practices in the capital, and many have called for legislative bodies to take action. Following this uproar, government bodies guaranteed they were working closely with each other to resolve the issues surrounding the infrastructure sector in the Maldives.
Nevertheless, public sentiment remains overwhelmingly sceptical as to whether this would provide a long-term solution or result in a satisfactory outcome.
Amidst the controversy, the government on January 7 decided to allow W Construction to resume work at all of their sites except Nalahiya Manzil, where Rawshan Jian was hit by the cement bag. Coincidentally, on the same day a 42-year-old man suffered a skull fracture when a wooden plank fell on him from a construction site near STO Head Office in Maafannu Ward.
What with these hazards, the lack of enforcement and implementation of any laws and procedures in the past, despite deaths and accidents, has deeply hindered the trust that citizens have in the government.
It is essential for the public to keep pushing for change on this matter, if not for us, for the sake of all the unfortunate souls we have lost due to negligence and misconduct, and in the interest of preventing history from repeating itself in the future.