Parliament endorses MP Mutthalib for Clemency Board

Fares-Maathoda MP Ibrahim Mutthalib has been endorsed as the parliamentary representative at the Clemency Board.

He received 40 votes in favor, and 23 against.

Hulhu-Meedhoo MP Ilyas Labeeb had nominated Kendhikulhudhoo MP Ahmed Easa to the post, but the nomination was rejected with 35 votes in favor and 36 against.

Mutthalib was nominated by Kela MP Dr Abdulla Mausoom following Galolhu-South MP Ahmed Mahloof’s resignation. Mahloof cited inefficiency and pressure to release inmates as grounds for leaving the board, Haveeru reports.

The Clemency Boards was established in March 2010 in accordance with Article 9 of the Clemency Act.

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Coconuts and sea cucumbers main course for Maldives agriculture

President Mohamed Nasheed recognised World Food Day this week by inaugurating the Coconut Planting Programme in Noonu Ken’dhikulhudhoo and diving for sea cucumbers off the island.

Recalling his 2009 underwater cabinet meeting, which drew international attention to the topic of climate change, the President’s dive honored an initiative for sustainable aquaculture in the Maldives.

For the past two years, a researcher known as Kandholhudhoo Dombe has harvested sea cucumbers in Ken’dhikulhudhoo lake and sold them on the international market, namely to Singapore and Hong Kong, MP for the area, Ahmed Easa, told Minivan News.

“Dombe did research on sea cucumbers 20 years back, and finally, over the last few years the research has become successful,” said Easa. “We are exporting quite a lot of these, and I believe that with the government’s support we have a good opportunity to develop agriculture in the Maldives.”

Sea cucumbers are bottom-dwelling animals enjoyed most commonly in Asian countries. The species is said to have nutritional and pharmaceutical values.

The government yesterday signed a contract establishing a formal cooperative relationship between Masmeeru Investments and the Noonu Ken’dhikulhudhoo island council. Under the agreement, the lake will be used for 20 years to harvest sea cucumbers, although the lease price will be re-negotiated with the community every five years.

The project comes at no cost to the community, and Dombe is responsible for any environmental or legal damages incurred. Dombe is also required to contribute a minimum of Rf 50,000 (US$3200) annually towards community projects on the island.

The contract has also opened up job opportunities. Easa said that new staffing needs will provide between 10 and 20 jobs for locals seeking employment.

“The government wants to do this properly. Currently, the community is receiving Rf 4-5 million (US$260,000-325,000) in profits annually from the project. It’s time to invest more, and we want to protect both sides,” Easa said.

Approximately 6 tons of Maldivian sea cucumbers with a value of US$12 million are exported annually. They are currently selling for between US$130-$150 per kilogram on the international market. Locally, one cucumber sells for Rf3.

All in the timing

Easa said the initiative comes at an important time for the Maldivain economy. Although leading economic contributor tourism is expanding, the Maldives’ most profitable export industry, fishing, is entering troubled waters.

In an interview with Minivan News, Felivaru’s Deputy General Manager Mohamed Waheed observed that the Maldivian tuna catch has fallen from “very high” figures in 2005-2006 “to now less than it was in 1995-1996.”

“The main thing is that the pattern of fishing changed,” Waheed said at the time. “May to August is the low season, but we can usually still catch fish in the southern waters of the country. But this season it did not happen – we had hardly any fish in the north, and very little in the south.”

Competition from the foreign market is also cutting into local fishing profits. While fresh local fish costs between Rf18-20, the same fish tinned abroad and imported back to the Maldives costs Rf11.

Noting the struggles of the fishing industry, Easa called agriculture the next big economic contributor.

“Tourism and fishing are declining, we need another way to provide income. Sea cucumbers have a bright future. All you have to do is drop the seeds in a lagoon or a lake and let them grow for eight to twelve months,” he said.

During the events on Ken’dhikulhudhoo, President Nasheed noted that the government plans to open the fisheries sector, especially the aquaculture and mari-culture fisheries, for investors. He observed that the Maldives was “wasteful by neglecting the potential use of various products of the palm tree,” and needed to capitalise on its natural and man-made resources to meet daily requirements and generate income-boosting activity.

Overcoming obstacles

The US State Department’s profile of the Maldives notes that agriculture makes up a mere two percent of the nation’s GDP, and that the soil has traditionally supported only subsistence crops such as coconut, banana, breadfruit, papayas, mangoes, taro, betel, chilies, sweet potatoes, and onions.

The report also observes that the 2004 tsunami contaminated many groundwater reserves with salt water. The U. S. government recently contributed US$7.1 million towards improving water systems in Lhaviyani Hinnavaru and Haa alif Dhihdhoo islands.

According to Easa, hydroponic methods may overcome these obstacles.

“The government is doing a good job of informing the community on how to grow products in different systems,” he said. “At yesterday’s festivities, there were stalls instructing locals on how to grow vegetables and fruits at home using these methods.”

Organic farming methods could also yield positive positive results. Island Organics Maldives Pvt. Ltd., which was founded in 2007, supports the Maldives’ first organic farm on Baa Maarikilu.

Company founder Shahida Zubair told Minivan News that the farm uses local resources to fertilise crops by composting shredded leaves, branches and coconut husk, manure from chicken, seaweed from Thulhaadhoo and Hithaadhoo, and kitchen waste.

“We have been trying over four years to fertilise our poor soil organically and now we are successful because the soil is beginning to be alive with micro-organisms and mycorrhizal fungi and earthworms,” she said. Zubair indicated that the soil results can be achieved elsewhere and will improve crop growth.

The President also attended celebrations in Thoddoo of Alifu Alifu Atoll, where he inaugurated the tele-medicine unit at the Thoddoo Health Centre, and helped lay the foundation for new classrooms at Alifu Alifu Thoddoo School.

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MP allowance debacle “not a mix-up”: State Finance Minister

The Finance Ministry today rejected implications that yesterday’s release and recall of the controversial Rf20,000-a-month committee allowances against a court injunction was a mistake which had caused confusion in the government.

“I don’t think it’s a mix-up,” said State Minister of Finance Ahmed Assad today. Assad was unclear about the court injunction.

“Releasing that sort of money is not a big procedure, I think this is just people trying to follow the general rules and experiencing an administrative error,” he said.

Assad didn’t believe anyone deserved blame, and said that “if anything, it is the ministry at large that was at fault.”

Local daily Haveeru yesterday reported that the allowances had been issued “by mistake.”

Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz had not responded to Minivan inquiries at time of press.

The court injunction, which was issued on September 26, ordered the Finance Ministry not to release funds for the committee allowance until the court rules on a case filed on behalf of a civil servant, contending that the allowance could not be given before deducted amounts from civil servants salaries were paid back.

The injunction has since been appealed by the Attorney General’s Office at the High Court, which is due to hold a first hearing on Sunday.

Parliamentary privileges

Meanwhile parliament yesterday debated a motion without notice proposed by Vilufushi MP Riyaz Rasheed claiming that a civic action campaign launched by concerned citizens in late August violated MPs’ special privileges.

MDP MP Ahmed Easa told Minivan News yesterday that colleagues had said the allowance was being released to the parliament secretariat, but he was told that it had been held back by the Minister of Finance.

“I don’t think there was any wording, anything in what the court said indicating that they couldn’t release the money,” said Easa. “But no money has been going in to my account today, I can tell you that.”

Easa elaborated on the allowance, saying that the amount of staffing support and allowances other government branches received justified MPs accepting the proposed allowance.

“The MP point of view is that some of the independent wages and allowances are greater than MPs. The MPs are expected to do research and other duties, but we don’t have an office, a supporting staff, a phone allowance, a travel stipend to visit constituents or other things to support our work. Seven percent of our salary is taken out for a pension fund, and Male’ is an expensive place to live,” said Easa.

Easa said he will accept the allowance, but pointed out that he had always objected to it in parliament on the grounds that all payrolls should be streamlined.

“But if these other government groups are taking an allowance, why not the MPs? This is a democracy, so I always respect the majority decision.”

Lawyer Mohamed Shafaz Wajeeh, one of two lawyers involved in the civil case, argued that the number of people benefiting from the allowance does not justify the sum released, which amounts to Rf18 million (US$1.1 million).

“It’s greed. Just greed,” Shafaz said. “MPs and higher-ups in the government are probably more aware of their own power than they should be. The thinking behind this goes against everything we know.”

Shafaz suggested the government consider other options, such as releasing the allowance in installments to lighten the burden on the state budget and other subsidiaries.

“But I’m not sure how much political will there is to do this. Everyone says the allowance is a good idea.”

Civil society

Although members of the civil sector earlier issued a statement objecting to the allowance, which they called “a gross injustice to the Maldivian people,” they have not articulated an official position on the issue of late.

Maldives Democracy Network (MDN) Director Fathimath Ibrahim Didi said that individuals in the organization were involved at the beginning, but that they did not represent MDN.

“Now, I think there may be a group working against the allowance, but it is loosely formed involving people from NGOs, lawyers and individuals,” she said.

Transparency Director Ilham Mohamed told Minivan News that a volunteer team was addressing the matter, but that large protests had not been organized among local non-government organizations (NGOs).

“I believe there may be sporadic gatherings in different places,” said Mohamed. “I do know that the NGOs that were involved in the original statement opposing the MP allowance are unified on this issue.”

“Symbolic”

The decision to approve the Rf20,000 (US$1200) monthly allowances in December 2010 was met with  protests and widespread public indignation. However in June this year, parliament rejected a resolution proposed by opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Ahmed Mahlouf to scrap the allowance.

Meanwhile the current civic action campaign was prompted by parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) deciding in late August to to issue a lump sum of Rf140,000 (US$9,000) as committee allowance back pay for January through July this year.

Article 102 of the constitution states that parliament shall determine the salaries and allowances of the President, Vice President, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, members of the Judiciary, and members of the independent institutions.

The Rf20,000 allowance was initially approved on December 28, 2010 as part of a revised pay scheme recommended by the PAC.

During yesterday’s debate on a privileges motion regarding the anti-committee allowance campaign, MP ‘Colonel’ Mohamed Nasheed, a member of the PAC, explained that the committee felt that MPs should earn a higher salary than High Court judges.

“But even then the honourable members of the Public Accounts Committee believed that MPs were receiving a sufficiently large salary in relation to the country’s economic situation,” he said, adding that a decision was made to institute a “symbolic” committee allowance.

“The thinking at the time was to give it to MPs who attend committee meetings as a very symbolic thing, for example one laari or 15 laari. But to ensure that take-home pay for MPs would be Rf82,500,” he said.

However, he continued, this “noble effort” became politicised and the subject of “an anti-campaign programme.”

Colonel called for legal action against the activists “when they go beyond the boundaries of free expression” and the right to protest, claiming that MPs’ families and children had been targeted.

Echoing a claim made by a number of MPs yesterday, Colonel said none of his constituents had asked him to decline the allowance.

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Parliament passes bill on broadcasting corporation

The parliament yesterday passed a bill establishing a broadcasting corporation, with board members to be appointed by parliament and responsible for controlling public media TVM and Voice of Maldives.

The bill effectively gives legal weight and parliamentary backing to the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC), which already runs state media.

Out of 69 MPs present, 42 voted to pass the bill. The bill was presented to the parliament by the government, with MPs attempting to introduce 35, but during the vote only 18 amendments were passed.

Spokesperson for the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) Parliamentary group Mohamed Shifaz said he was happy with the broadcasting bill but was unhappy on how the broadcasting corporation bill was passed.

Shifaz said that according to the bill the board members would be appointed by the parliament.

”The parliament will be appointing people for the board,” Shifaz said. “Parliament will do the interviewing and select people.”

Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Ahmed Mahloof said he was “very happy” with the bill, suggesting consternation within the MDP over the appointment of board members was “because TVM is the only media now which promotes the government.”

Mahloof said the MDP MPs were worried that if TVM became independent, “there will be no one to promote the MDP.”

”TVM would never report anything negative to the governemnt,” he said. ”It always promotes the government, that’s why they are worried that TVM might become independent when the parliament appoints board members for the broadcasting corporation.”

He said if the bill was approved by the president, media in the Maldives would become “free and independent.”

MDP MP Ahmed Easa said that appointing the board members by the parliament, announcing for interested applicants for the position and interviewing the applicants by the parliament made the parliament “a place where business is done.”

Easa said that the opposition MPs passed the bill because “they want to change the public media the way they want to.”

”It is fine if the parliament monitors the board,” he said, ”but if they are appointing people for the board that means the parliament is [participating in] the country’s business community.”

DRP MP Abdulla Mausoom said the bill was passed with majority support of MPs.

Mausoom said the President Mohamed Nasheed should “be very happy” with the way the bill was passed claiming that many people blamed the government for attempting to control the media.

”Now the president can say he has no power over the media,” Mausoom said.

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NGO hold a meeting on decentralisation

Decentralisation is one of the biggest issues facing the Maldives, a group of NGOs said yesterday at a meeting intended to inform the public on the subject.

Transparency Maldives, Democracy house, Rights for All, Madulu, Maldivian Detainee Network, Strength of Society and the Hodehdhoo Association for Development gave out information on decentralisation, an issue which last month caused gridlocks inside parliament and protests outside.

During the last term of parliament, President Nasheed presented a bill to decentralising the Maldives and divide up the islands into seven provinces, as stated in the manifesto of MDP.

Opposition DRP MPs stalled the bill with ammendments leading to quarrelling in the final sessions and several protests. The DRP claimed dividing the Maldives into provinces would affect the provision of services to people, while the MDP claimed it would make it easier.

President Nasheed withdrew the bill due to the heated dispute between MPs, with the intention of returning it later.

DRP MP Ahmed Mahloof said that dividing the Maldives into seven provinces was “illegal”.

Mahloof claimed only 15 per cent of the population would vote for decentralisation if President Nasheed put it to a referendum.

”We asked them to take a vote among the people, and I know they are afraid,” said Mahloof.

Meanwhile, MDP MP Ahmed Easa claimed according to the law Nasheed is compelled to divide the Maldives into provinces because it was in the MDP’s manifesto.

”We believe that people voted for MDP because they want to have what is in our manifesto, so we do not need to be taking another vote on this which will cost more than Rf50 million to undertake,” said Easa.

He claimed that dividing the islands into provinces would bring facilities closer to people.

”For instance, is it easier to come Male’ to get a service provided by the housing ministry or to get that service from the nearby island?” Easa asked.

The bill will return to parliament when it resumes in March.

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