As the People’s Majlis today reconvened for the first time in 2011, the Parliamentary Speaker Abdulla Shahid called on MPs to speed up the rate in which they worked to pass legislation with a very “busy” session ahead.
Shahid’s comments were made after President Mohamed Nasheed opened the year’s first parliamentary session with an address to MPs on the current state of national finances and developments.
Nasheed used his annual address in order to play up what he saw as “marked improvements“ in various national sectors, as well as warning of the need for further national budget cuts and unity amongst MPs in relation to recently formed local councils over the year ahead.
“The most important accomplishment is the establishment of local councils. Obviously, there are obstacles in the management of some of these councils,” Nasheed said during his opening remarks. “The government’s aim is to solve these complications in introducing decentralisation in a manner that does not compromise the features of a unitary state stipulated in the Constitution.”
The Presidential Address is required under the constitution to be given during the first meeting of the Majlis each year.
Nasheed claimed in the speech that he hoped that competitive parties would “not deliberately participate” in trying to sabotage the role of local councils, in reference to disputes over the location of some Atoll Council offices this week.
Speaking to Minivan News after the address, Abdulla Shahid, the Parliamentary Speaker and MP for the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) said that today’s meeting of the Majlis was solely for delivery of the Presidential address. He added that no administrative duties were therefore carried out at the sitting.
Shahid claimed that DRP leader Ahmed Ali Thasmeen – as the head of the country’s largest political opposition – would be providing the response of his party to the president’s speech within 14 days as allowed under law.
However, in reflecting on the work ahead for Parliament when it meets next on 8 March, Shahid claimed that vital bills related to the country’s Penal Code and judiciary were among key early acts that he hoped to see passed within the Majlis.
Yet, the agenda for the next Majlis sitting expected to be unveiled within the next 24 hours, Shahid claimed that parliament had a full schedule ahead on the back of what he called a busy session last year.
As such, the parliamentary speaker added that parliament needed to speed up its work rate in the year ahead and could not afford to relax while a number of important bills had yet to be passed.
Shahid accepted however that there were challenges in passing laws, particularly in translating bills from their original English form, made in consultation with “overseas experts”, into Dhivehi to gain approval through the Majlis.
“When we look at the original English documents [of bills] they make a lot of sense,” he said. “Sometimes it is when these documents are translated into Dhivehi that they don’t always make much sense. There is a lot of work that needs to be done.”
However, the speaker claimed that he was encouraged by the work of the parliament during 2010, despite partisan infighting that led to the resignation of the country’s cabinet at protest at so-called scorched earth politics adopted by some MPs.
“The amount of work concluded by parliament last year is quite remarkable,” Shahid claimed. “The passing of 42 bills out of a total of 52 that were submitted was quite good I think.”
The sentiments appeared to be shared by President Nasheed who believed the Majlis has helped bring about a number of improvements for infrastructure and development in the country despite overall differences.
“2010 was a year of achievement in many areas,” he said, during the speech.
Taking the economy as an example of the developments, the president claimed that after the previous budget was delivered back in December 2009, the country’s financial deficit was about Rf3.8 billion – amounting to 18.7 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Nasheed said that despite expenditure being higher than revenue on the back of recent budget cuts, the deficit as of the latest budget delivered in December 2010 was down 2.3 percent to 16.4 percent of total nationa GDP, amounting to Rf3.1 billion.
“By the end of 2010, the income revenue of the government amounted to Rf6 billion.” he said. “By 2010, the government had estimated recurrent revenue of Rf9.1 billion.”
While continuing to address financial developments, Nasheed said that the government would also aim to try and increase the value of Maldivian currency by strengthening existing monetary regulations.
“Additionally, we need long and mid-term measures for effective solutions to the economic infrastructure. According to the Strategic Action Plan, recurrent expenses and income are required to be kept in line with national income,” he said. “The government had made several efforts to achieve this target, including corporatising and privatising government services.”
In addressing the passing last year of taxation structures such as a Business Profit Tax and a Maldives Tourism Goods and Services Tax (GST), the president thanked parliament for supporting these bills.
Nasheed claimed in addition that small and medium enterprises would also continue to receive financial assistance from the government under a programme of soft loans and other financial packages designed to try and compliment schemes like business development centres.
These development centres – set up in Kulhudhuhfushi and Hithadhoo – were designed to offer training in fishing, guest houses, handicraft and agricultural training amongst other disciplines.
“Important steps taken to eliminate obstacles facing those wishing to start a business, include enabling vital information, trade licenses and permissions to be submitted and received via the Internet,” Nasheed claimed in the speech. “These will be facilitated this year.”
In areas such as agriculture the president said that the government was focusing on a number of regulations outlining new guidelines for catch and exporting products aimed at improving the income within the fisheries sector.
“Last year, much work was also done to develop agriculture in the Maldives. In this regard, agricultural products of 3 islands were brought out to the market, by contracting tourist resorts and food supply companies,” he said. “Moreover, efforts were made to raise the prices of poultry farming and agricultural yield through the production and marketing of locally produced goods. In addition, Rf1.7m worth of goods were made available to farmers at reasonable rates and 1,932 farmers were trained in various aspects of agriculture.“
The president claimed that this focus had also allowed for the establishment of subsidies totaling about Rf50m in order to allow 25 islands to be sufficiently capable of regularly marketing produce grown there. The focus was also expected to be backed by an Agricultural School in Laamu Atoll Gan, according to Nasheed.
In addressing plans for the country’s tourism sector, Laamu Atoll was also highlighted as a zone that would be developed to additionally host three to four star resort properties as part of stated aims to cater for more middle-market tourism.
The president also focused on national developments in the form of land reclamation and the construction of a number of airports that were started during the previous year.
“This would introduce even greater opportunities to all the islands in the region, and multiply economic activities,” he said. “The construction of an airport in Fuvahmulah is underway and the airport in Baa Atoll Dharavandhoo is likely to reach the stage of completion by the end of 2012.”
Developments at Gan International Airport were also touched upon in the speech in relation to a local joint venture between the existing site’s management, the State Trading Organization (STO) and the Maldives Airports Company. The president expressed hope that the partnership would lead to a boost in services in and out of Addu Atoll.
The issue of transport networks was also raised during the speech, with Nasheed stating that modernisation of transport systems between the country’s numerous islands and atolls was still being planned as a vital development challenge for Maldivians.
Among planned infrastructure developments, the president claimed that the government remained committed to pledges to try and provide sewerage and drinking water, along with affordable housing wider to wider numbers of the population.
“We have commenced the project of building a total of 10,000 housing units, of which 4,150 have been contracted and 1,750 of which are currently under construction,” he said. “In order to resolve the issues of congestion and lack of housing in Male’, under the first phase of Veshifahi Male’ programme, application forms are being issued for those wishing for housing. The second phase of the Gulhifalhu Project is underway and the reclamation of the 50-hectare land is scheduled to begin next month.”
A further 298 housing units were also said to be in the course of being supplied to people in areas such as Gaaf alif Atoll who still required shelter following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Alongside these infrastructure developments, the president also used his speech to touch upon the environmental programmes that he had been a vocal campaigner of internationally – such as the Maldives becoming a carbon neutral nation by 2020.
“Various efforts were exerted by the government last year to transform the Maldives into a carbon-neutral nation. In this regard, auditing of carbon present in the Maldives and the measure of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere were identified,” he claimed. “It is highly essential that we embrace renewable energy and diversify sources and techniques used to generate renewable energy. The environmental changes instigated by the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are directly linked to the life of every Maldivian.”
The tourism industry was not deemed immune to the need for greater attempts at providing sustainable initiatives, with the president claiming that sub divisionary offices of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) would be also be established to expand their presence and influence around the country.
Looking at areas such as health, the president said that over 56,000 Maldivians had been signed up to the state run health insurance scheme known as Madhana, a figure that was expected to grow during the coming year.
“The government expended over Rf144m on social protection last year in an effort to assuage the public plight of having to depend on handouts for healthcare,” he said. “Work will continue this year on increasing the number of people registered under Madhana. The government’s aim is to raise the number of Madhana clients to nearly 100,000 by the end of this year.”
Nasheed also played up the developments such as Telelmedicine in his speech, a service he claimed was currently introduced in five islands to alleviate potential strain on medical services, with a further 34 islands expected to adopt the system in 2011.
“This system would instead allow patients to benefit from the expertise and facilities of hospitals and doctors all across the world,” he said. “This service would be introduced in another 34 islands of the Maldives in the future.”
Two additional bills were also expected to be put in front of the Majlis during the coming year. According to the president, both the Health Service Bill and the Medical Negligence Bill were devised to bring important overhauls to the country’s medical services that he hoped would see them put in place as soon as possible.
Nasheed claimed that important breakthroughs had also been brought in by the Majlis in areas such as protecting rights for disabled people along with providing financial aid.
“In order to maintain social security costs at a sustainable level, a social security fund has been established and is being developed further to protect people from economic instability and insecurity,” he said. “A special budget has been allocated for this purpose.”
The president claimed that “significant steps” had also been made by parliament during 2010 to finalise and roll out an amended national education programme including technical training and standards.
The measures, outlined under a new Education Bill had now been submitted to the Majlis. Despite the government’s intentions, Nasheed accepted that not all aims were as yet being made.
“Last year, I stated that our main goal for 2010 was to increase the percentage of graduates holding 5 [O-level] passes from 32 per cent to 41 per cent,” he said during the speech. “Even though this goal was not reached, the figure has now been increased to 35 percent. Performance improvements were achieved by 100 schools in 2010 over 2009. To sum up, the percentage of students who passed in 5 subjects has increased in those schools.”
The President also claimed that his government had also obtained the grandest achievement within the country’s academic history so far with the establishment of theMaldives National University.
“The university will serve the purpose of creating, preserving and disseminating knowledge and skills required for national development in cultural, social, economic and public spheres to safeguard the Maldives as a sovereign Islamic nation,” he said. “I take this moment to sincerely thank the honourable members of this Majlis for granting passage to the National University Act”
The president also used his speech to claim that 2010 had seen “notable achievements” within the Maldives in regards to strengthening religious awareness and rejuvenating Islam among the public.
To this end, Nasheed said that religious scholars had been used to provide sermons across the country, while additional mosques were constructed in 12 islands across the nation.
“Alms collection was also increased compared to last year, and the funds were used for major projects. 39 islands were selected for construction of new mosques this year, 21 of which would be funded by the state budget,” he said. “Construction of these mosques is set to begin this year, and work is being done to procure foreign assistance for the construction of another 18 mosques. In addition to those, I would like to highlight that the first Islamic bank to be established in the Maldives will be opened during this month.”
In relation to criminal activity in the Maldives, the president claimed that the number of crimes, at least reported, to the Maldives Police Service had fallen by eleven percent in 2011. Nasheed added that a new police strategy to run from this year until 2013 had also been put in place in order to try and focus additionally on emerging areas such as cyber crimes. Drugs were said to remain a key focus for law enforcement officials.
“The efforts exerted by the government to prevent the illegal trafficking of narcotic drugs into the country have been rewarding,” said Nasheed. “This is evidenced by the reduction in the number of people reported for drug offences by 46 percent in 2010, compared with that of in 2009, according to recent Police records. Moreover, these records indicate a 40 percent reduction in the percentage of youth exposed and therefore, are highly susceptible to adopting the habit of drug abuse.”
Culture and sport
According to the president, another important area of focus for the country was deemed to be in the development of cultural and literary talent.
The inaugural Hay Festival Maldives, a sister event to the annual Hay Festival in Wales, UK, was seen as an important step in highlighting the works of local artists and writers alongside their international counterparts.
The president claimed that on the back of the event, the government was looking to try and develop local skills and talent with the aid of an Arts Council and Heritage Council during 2011.
Similarly, Nasheed praised developments made in the fields of national sports such as the success of the Maldives cricket team after its triumph in the ACC Trophy Challenge held in Thailand this year.
Raising the issue of equality, Nasheed said that significant steps had been taking to try and reduce gender discrimination.
“In this regard, a resort forum was held to promote products crafted by women and financial aid was rendered to organizations striving to encourage and emancipate women in our society to gain their rights and opportunities, and to extend and employ their potential in managing trade and businesses,” he said.
Under plans outlined for the year ahead and beyond, the president said that the work of the country’s National Security Council was in the process of trying to be expanded. An office of a National Security Advisor had also been set up to extend this work including laying out marine security, identifying internal threats and improving bilateral relations.
“This action plan will be devised within 90 days forward,” the president added. “For the first time in the Maldivian history, Maldivian soldiers will participate in the UN Peace Keepers’ regiment under a contract to be signed this year.”
In discussing the controversial Privileges Bill that the Majlis had attempted to pass at the end of last year within the budget, the president said that he felt that revisions needed to be urgently considered in line with recommendations he had provided.
“I regard it as being highly important that the members of the Majlis receive their necessary privileges and protection,” Nasheed said. “During the history of 77 years of the Majlis, there have been several circumstances under which some respected members of the Majlis, either incumbent or resigned then, had to face various contemptible consequences concerning politics, justice and other controversies.”
In considering these potential difficulties, the president asked parliament to consider a Privilege Bill that was provided under an established and legitimate law.
Nasheed added that with democracy being a key aim of his government, ensuring efficient division of the different branches of the state were a key part of these goals. Amidst recent concerns addressed by some bodies like the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) that the nation’s judiciary may not be working independently, Nasheed said he believed the role of the Majlis in trying to ensure this was increasingly important.
“A noteworthy example is the establishment of important offices that come under the judicial system in the Maldives last year,” he claimed.
“Today, my main appeal is for you endeavor to instill trust and faith in the judicial system of the Maldives and in the work of parliament. I appeal for unity in the national interests and prioritize constructive judgment and wisdom to allow for peace, progress and order in our country, without being associated with those seeking abrupt opportunities to disrupt and topple the government.”
The full address can be read here.