Shortly after Mariyam Sadha* moved to Malé in 2002, at the age of 14, her father was thrown into jail and her brother lost his job at the airport. She had just started eight grade at Aminiya School, but was forced to work at the grocery store and tutor younger students to help pay rent.
Without a constant source of income, Sadha’s mother began housing students from the atolls in their two bedroom apartment. There were eight people sleeping in her room, Sadha recalls. She finished tenth grade exams with excellent grades, but could not pursue further education.
“How could I? I could see what my parents were going through, I could not add to their burden,” the tall young woman says, adjusting her scarf.
Instead, as soon as she turned 18, Sadha married to “escape” her congested house. Soon afterwards, she became pregnant.
Sadha took night classes, but could not complete her business management degree with a young child and a resort-worker husband whom she sees once every few months. But at 25, she says she is “now out of all that shit”, due to a stable income from a travel agency job. However, she continues to spend most of her earnings on rent.
“This is modern slavery. The system is built so that the average person does not have any savings. I earn a lot more than those who work in the government. But at the end of the month, me and my husband together, we don’t have anything.”
“All the money we earn we have to go pay rent. That moment – when you have to count all of those bills and hand it over to someone else – is incredibly difficult,” she says.
Sadha is one of the administrators of an online Facebook page called the Rajjetherey Meehunge Party (RMP). The movement with 15,520 followers contends that the residents of the atolls are trapped in a vicious cycle of “work hard, pay rent, and die” due to forced migration to capital city Malé.
The term raajjetherey meehun – often used in a derogatory manner – refers to Maldivian citizens who are not original residents of the capital city. RMP’s founder, Ali Yasir, 27, argues the institutionalised regional discrimination of the 70s continues indirectly today, as jobs, healthcare, and education continue to be concentrated in Malé.
The city is now the most densely populated city in the world with rent prices equalling that of developed cities.
The Rajjetherey Meehunge Party advocates for the development of urban centers with modern facilities on already-existing large landmasses throughout the Maldives in order to incentivise small communities to relocate.
“We cannot have development when people are dispersed over a 190 something islands. Development from the citizen’s money should not just be in the Malé region. Development should be available to all citizens.”
“We want people to be aware, to pressure their MPs, to divert resources to and consolidate populations to the North and South,” Yasir says.
Money making machine for the rich
Articles 16, 17, 23, 37, and 41 of the constitution guarantee education, shelter, jobs, clean water, sewerage and transport systems to all citizens without discrimination – but RMP contends the Maldivian government (or Malé government as RMP describes it) uses tax payer’s money to concentrate all services in the Malé region.
Furthermore, even though successive governments have undertaken multi-million dollar projects to address congestion in Malé, they have failed, Yasir argues.
President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom first announced the reclamation of Hulhumalé in 1997 from a northern lagoon adjacent to Malé, claiming it would solve congestion. In 2011, President Mohamed Nasheed announced a US$600 million development project in the Gulhi Lagoon east of Malé – also to relieve congestion.
The Veshi Fahi Malé project – combining development of Malé, Villingili, Thilafushi, and Hulhumalé – was touted as providing adequate housing for the least advantaged families from Malé and support the decongestion of the capital city.
The new government of President Abdulla Yameen has continued the trend, pledging to establish a youth city on Hulhumalé and to connect Malé and Hulhumalé with a multi-million dollar bridge.
However, instead of providing the needy with housing, land and apartments have gone to rich businessmen, says Yasir. Moreover, with new land and apartments costing millions of rufiyaa, both Hulhumalé and Gulhi Falhu have become a moneymaking machine for the rich, he argues.
“God did not give Hulhumalé to the people of Malé. It’s being developed with all of our money. But even now, it is Malé residents and businessmen who gain land plots from there. There is corruption in it as well. This is injustice,” he says.
The root of all social ills
Successive governments have brandished the term ‘housing issue’ to manipulate islanders into believing they have no land in order to pump money into reclaiming land in the Malé region, Sadha says.
“We don’t have a housing issue. We own 5000 acre plots in our home islands. The problem is that there are no services where we own land.”
“There are water shortages and power cuts. There are schools, but no teachers. There are hospitals, but no doctors. Even if we have jobs in the islands, all the money feeds into Malé. There are cemeteries in the islands, but we have to be buried in Malé,” she says.
Forced migration has led to ghost villages in the atolls, Yasir says. Every second house is abandoned and falling apart in his home island of Gaaf Alif Atoll Kolamafushi. Only the old, young mothers and their infants remain on the island. The men are working away from home, and the ones that stay on the island have turned to drugs, he says.
It is migrant families who now live in Hulhumalé apartments which were originally given at a low price to rich Malé residents, Sadha says. If the least disadvantaged Malé residents had indeed received the flats, it would be their families living there, she says.
Instead, three or four families from the islands are often crammed into small spaces and pay inflated rents equivalent to Malé prices. The rent then finances landowners to relocate their families abroad, she says.
“The government may say look, we are consolidating populations here, in Hulhumalé, in Gulhi Falhu, but without developing other regions, it is not consolidating, that is congestion. Consolidation and congestion are different. This area cannot accommodate everyone. People will live in slums, on top of each other. That is not what we deserve,” she says.
“This is not living. This is just existing because you are not dead. This is not life. All the money you earn, you give to someone else. The rest for something else. Inflation keeps rising,” she continues.
The RMP believes congestion is at the root of most social ills in the Maldives, from high rates of divorce to an increase in gang crimes. It is also driving more and more women to prostitution, Yasir argues.
Instead of addressing the root cause, the government tends to advocate stop-gap measures such as religious education and increasing security, he continues.
“What the heck? Religious education is not going to solve it. Without an environment in which people can live in contentment, those issues cannot be solved. No matter how much [Home Minister] Umar Naseer increases guns, soldiers, and police in the country, these issues cannot be solved, unless we can build an environment in which people can be content. That is the smart solution,” he says.
Developing urban centers on already existing large landmasses throughout the Maldives and consolidating populations to these regions is the only way to relieve congestion in Malé, he argues.
“There are a lot of southerners in Malé. They will migrate back when there are jobs and services in their region. Then there will be three centers – in the north, central, and south of Maldives,” he says.
The government has not only made no substantive effort to develop other regions, but it has also actively blocked any development initiatives by locals, Yasir contends.
He points to numerous pledges which have failed to bear fruit in the past decade, including a 2005 promise to develop south central Laamu Atoll Gan as a city, a promise to build a university campus called “dream campus” in the same atoll, a July 2011 agreement with the Chinese to provide city facilities in southern Huvadhoo atoll, and promises to upgrade the northern Hanimaadhoo International Airport and the southern Gan International Airport.
President Yameen must complete these initiatives before pumping money into football stadiums and a youth city in Hulhumalé, Yasir said.
Meanwhile, Housing Minister Mohamed Muizz has in a tweet criticised the movement as inciting hatred, claiming that 97 percent of the state budget is spent on the atolls.
However, Yasir and Sadha suggests that any money spent on island development usually takes the form of establishing futsal pitches, building cemetery walls, and renovating already existing infrastructure.
“The government is saying one thing and doing the other. They call Addu a city now. But it does not have municipal services or jobs,” Sadha says.
While a system of local governance has been established to empower locals to make their own decisions, the central government has failed to empower the local councils, they say. Several councils – including opposition dominated Malé and Addu City councils – have criticised the government’s decision to limit their ability to generate independent income by leasing land.
Divide and Rule
The RMP believes the government favors populations remaining dispersed over 190 islands for political control.
“When people are isolated, it is easier to control them,” Yasir says, adding:“That is why rich politicians can buy votes with MVR500 (US$30). If islanders were economically empowered, if they could see a future, they will not accept bribes.”
Sadha raises the example of tourism tycoon and MP Sun Travel Ahmed Shiyam who owns resorts in Haa Alif, Noonu, and Dhaalu Atolls.
“These are his three atolls. Every year he sponsors pilgrims for the Hajj from those three atolls. The residents of these three atolls eat and sleep when he provides because he employs them. He will not want to lose control of those people.
“It is rich tourism tycoons who oppose local tourism. They are afraid of empowerment, of people not begging. I don’t know what their motive is. Are they afraid people won’t end up at their feet? I keep thinking, there must be something else. All I know is they oppose any empowerment,” she continues.
A different day
Yasir initially started the Facebook page in December 2013. He ordered pizza one day, compiled posts and slowly started releasing them over the week. Within six days, he had gained 6,000 followers online. He also received death threats. But he says he is not deterred. With the help of Sadha and other dedicated volunteers, the group is now making plans to “leave Facebook.”
“This is our message: When the government builds a wall around the cemeteries or builds a mortuary, don’t accept this to be what you deserve. Demand development in your region, in the bigger islands. Tell them you don’t want to come to this region!” Sadha said.
Several people have left pessimistic comments saying there is no use in pursuing RMP’s objectives, but Yasir believes he must at least try for the sake of his children.
“They tell me there is no other way but the current situation. They cannot even imagine this may go another way. But someone has to take the initiative. We cannot stand by without doing anything. At least, I can tell my children I tried. Come on, there’s only 300,000 people here. We can manage,” he says.
For Sadha, RMP must succeed because she does not want her child to grow up in the same conditions she did.
“I also want to see a different day. I want to see a day where we are able to save, when we do not have to spend all of our money on rent. Without even knowing it, we are slowly getting depressed. You slowly get used to it to the point you don’t know it is slavery that you live under. I want to see a different day.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly said islands must have water and sewerage systems to establish guesthouses. It has been modified to reflect the change.