Democracy and the hypocrisy of decentralization

Leaders of the current coalition government | Photo: Maldives Independent

One of the most talked about points which has always been taken up by the Maldivian politicians during any speech, whether it’s in a campaign or after elections, is decentralization. It has been a key pledge by almost all the administrations which has come and for sure, which would come in the future as well.

The most recent mention of this came a few days back at President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s speech during the inauguration of the football stadium, hospital upgrades and centralizing of the powerhouse in Laamu atoll Gan.

During his speech, President Solih said that the importance of decentralization has been seen more than ever during the Covid-19 pandemic which the whole world has faced this year. He reassured that the governments’ main aim was to provide essential services close to the people and to decentralize the functions of the government further.

He also pointed out that the importance of health and other essential services to be made available in islands is seen as more people have started to depend on the regional facilities. President Solih has also assured that the administration would work to ensure that it’s not a burden to the people to get these services.

But does President Solih’s words match his actions? One of the most raised points by people is the vast difference of the budget which is allocated to the Greater Male’ Region compared to the rest of the Maldives.

According to the 2021 budget sent to the Parliament by the government, MVR 2.9 Billion is to be spent on Greater Male’ Region alone while the remaining of the whole Maldives would be getting MVR 3.6 Billion in developmental projects.

While majority of the amount allocated for the Greater Male’ Region is for the new bridge to be built with USD 400 million loan from EXIM Bank of India and a USD 100 million grant from the Indian government, many people have raised their concern of such loans during the time when the whole world economy would be trying to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics of Maldives, Greater Male’ Region would have a population of 356,243 people while the population of major atolls are forecasted to drop drastically by 2054. According to the statistics 69 percent of the Maldivian living population would be in the Greater Male’ Region.

With these population projections and the budget allocations of the government which is heavily funding the developmental projects of the capital region, it’s hard to say that the government is true on its pledge of decentralization, as their decision would result in more people being forced to flock to Male’ in some way or another as opportunities and services become more available in the region.

It is obvious that the government is projecting to increase the Greater Male’ Regions population by more than 200,000 within the next 30 years and if they had an ounce of true decentralization, they would not be concentrating the nations annual budget to the capital area.

While almost all political leaders, shout at the top of their voice and say that they would decentralize the country’s administration, till date no honest work for this can be seen. While most of them speak about this, it has become a powerful political tool for them to get the common persons vote. While they give a small harbor or a small jetty to an island, they give a multi million dollar bridge to the central area. While it takes a decade to develop a water and sewage system for a small island of less than 2,000 population, it takes a couple of months to do such projects in Greater Male’ Area.

The government has planned major infrastructural projects around the country at a time when the whole world is working on resuming the economic activities and pumping money in to the economy. However, Maldives is taking loans from various parties, mainly India for these projects. 3/4 of the income from grants was forecasted to be received from India. The government expects to receive MVR 2,226,539,752 as grants for the year 2021, MVR 1,730,271,572 out of the figure is forecasted to be received from the neighboring India.

Regardless of whether it is a loan or a grant, majority of this is concentrated on the development and job creation in the capital area while small scale projects are being carried out in the other parts of the Maldives.

One of the best examples of this is the major stadiums which are to be build in Male’ and Hulhumale’m while the islands get small futsal pitches. While they spend MVR 16 Million to develop Lonuziyaaraiy Park in the capital Male’ city, other islands get barely nothing for such projects from the government. Most of the time, the parks in the other islands are developed under CSR projects from various parties.

One of the most hypocritical actions of the government recently was to open a Table Tennis Hall and National Martial Arts Centre “outside of Male'” in Hulhumale’. While the Minister of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment, Ahmed Mahloof boasted about this in his tweet stating that this was the first TT training facility to be built outside of Male’ in the last 43 years, the fact remains that this is not really the case. While Minister Mahloof sees Hulhumale’ as outside of Male’, it is foolish of him to think that Maldivians are so gullible and expects people to accept what he says.

In addition to this, all the government institutions are also based in the capital. All the ministries are located in the capital and most of the services are still very much centralized. What ever needs to be done, has to be done through Male’ or needs approval from someone stationed in Male’. Even for the developmental projects, people stationed in Male’ or Hulhumale’ have to give the go ahead for the projects to start. This creates various issues such as delayed in approval of small matters and also fund allocation and management as the decisions cannot be taken straight there and then. This also leads to a great waste of funds as these people have to travel to the islands in the name of monitoring these projects.

Government can easily allocate these projects and management of these to the island councils and city councils after giving them the necessary resources to hire technical people. This creates a path for better project management and more job creation within the islands. This also allows islands to develop the places as they want and at a faster speed.

As the hypocrisy and the double standards continue as administrations come and go, one fact remains true since the beginning. The development of the capital region is far more advanced than any other area in the country.