The Cabinet has advised President Mohamed Waheed Hassan to overturn the previous government’s decision to make the Addu Equatorial Convention Center (ECC) zone an ‘uninhabited area’, potentially allowing the sale of prohibited commodities such as liquor, as practiced for resorts.
The area was designated ‘uninhabited’ on November 19, 2011 by former president and current presidential candidate Mohamed Nasheed.
Yesterday’s recommendation originated in the Finance Ministry, which submitted a paper on the subject during Monday’s cabinet meeting, the president’s office reports.
Spokespersons at the President’s Office said they could not provide details on the recommendation; Addu City Mayor Abdullah Sodig reports that the council was not consulted on or informed of the Cabinet’s recommendation, and claims that it was made for political gain in the face of this Saturday’s presidential elections.
“The Cabinet recommendation opposes Nasheed’s [tourism development] policy, and they want to show the public that they are trying to give land to people who need it. But it’s really just political gain,” Sodig said. “Three days before elections, I don’t think it’s about giving people land.”
Zoning laws in the Maldives determine which islands and areas may be developed for tourism and therefore exempted from national laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol and pork and enforcing compliance with cultural dress codes. Maldives’ southern atolls, including Addu and nearby Gnaviyani atoll, have historically benefited the least from the country’s tourism economy.
President Nasheed decreed the ECC zone uninhabited prior to the 2011 SAARC summit in Addu, effectively laying a foundation for resort, guest house and other tourism-oriented development activities.
Nearly two years since this decree the mood has shifted dramatically. Bids to develop the convention center and surrounding area were interrupted by the February 7, 2012 transfer of power, after which the new administration retained the building as a “national asset”.
Formerly enthusiastic about Addu’s growth potential, Sodig today expressed deep frustration with the government’s inaction.
“[The Convention Center] is never dusted, the toilets are never cleaned, the floors never polished,” he said, adding that the facility has only been used for a few wedding parties and political rallies since it opened in November 2011.
Sodig claimed that his repeated requests for maintenance funds and development activity had received minimal response from President Waheed’s government.
“I took the State Minister of Housing to the building and asked him to look into maintenance. I even met with the Attorney General, Azima Shukoor, for the same purpose in Male,” said Sodig. “She said she would think about it. But until now they have done nothing.”
Sodig reports that without tourism development the ECC, which as of January was mired in MVR 4 million ($260,078) of unpaid electricity bills, “would end up as a liability”. As of June, the Maldivian government owed State Electricity Company (STELCO) MVR 543 million ($35.2) in unpaid electricity bills.
The Cabinet’s sudden action this week suggests that the ECC zone is now being treated as a pawn in the housing debate for the presidential elections. Addu Atoll is home to a significant percentage of the population, and has historically supported President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).
In 2002, 700 ECC-zone land plots were allocated to Adouin families. According to the mayor, only 150 plots have been officially registered as ‘in use’. In an atoll where the average household income is MVR 60,000 ($3,900) per year, the approximate cost of building a two-bedroom home is MVR300,000 ($19,500).
While Adduans who received land in the ECC zone objected to President Nasheed’s zoning decree in 2011, they were content with the island council’s compensatory proposal, Sodig said. He added that he was not aware of any recent complaints that might have triggered the Cabinet to recommend zoning reversal.
The ministries of Finance and Housing had not responded to calls at time of press.