President Yameen defends nomination of Maumoon Hameed for prosecutor general post

President Abdulla Yameen has defended the nomination of his nephew Maumoon Hameed to the vacant post of prosecutor general (PG), announcing his intention to nominate the lawyer to parliament for a second time.

Parliament rejected Hameed – son of former Atolls Minister Abdulla Hameed – on April 14 after the nominee fell three votes short of securing parliamentary approval.

Addressing supporters in the Feydhoo ward of Addu City last night (May 18), President Yameen insisted that Hameed was chosen based on competence and qualification rather than family connection.

“I don’t want in any case for the People’s Majlis to appoint Maumoon Hameed to the post of Prosecutor General  because he is my brother or a member of my family,” Yameen said.

“But even tonight, I want to say proudly, standing before the public, that yes, it is true, there are educated and competent persons in my family. They want to serve the Maldivian government and the Maldivian people. They will be brought before the law when they violate the law. I am sending Maumoon Hameed’s name [to parliament] this time as well.”

He added that he wished for parliament to approve “approve a trustworthy and experienced person as prosecutor general.”

Opposition members of the Majlis involved in the previous approval process have suggested that he had failed to meet the oversight committee’s assessment criteria, suggesting that he had shown a poor understanding of current legal issues concerning the country’s legal system.

Yameen observed that the nomination of his nephew has been the subject of criticism in the media, noting that the names of other applicants would be forwarded to parliament as well.

Earlier this month, the President’s Office invited applications for the PG post for a third time after too few candidates put forward their names.

President’s Office Spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz revealed this week that the applicants included four judges in addition to former Tourism Minister Mariyam Zulfa and state prosecutor Aishath Fazna Ahmed.

The PG’s post has been vacant since November following the resignation of Ahmed Muiz ahead of a scheduled no-confidence motion in parliament.

The criminal justice system was meanwhile temporarily brought to a halt with the resignation on May 4 of Deputy Prosecutor General Hussain Shameem – who had been fulfilling the responsibilities of the PG – citing “obstruction” by the Criminal Court.

In the wake of Shameem’s resignation, state prosecutors refused to attend trials in the absence of both the PG and his deputy. However, the prosecutors resumed work after a week-long hiatus following a Supreme Court order last week.

18th People’s Majlis

Following parliament’s rejection of Hameed last month, opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) Spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor suggested that the failure to secure a simple majority of 39 votes was down to either poor organisation on the part of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) or a sign of discord within the governing coalition.

“MP Gasim Ibrahim [Jumhooree Party leader] was openly lobbying against the PG nominee 30 minutes before vote but voted with PPM,” Hamid claimed, noting the conspicuous absence of a number of prominent government-aligned MPs for the vote.

Hamid predicted that Maumoon Hameed’s name would be resubmitted to the newly-elected parliament as the Progressive Coalition secured a comfortable majority in the March 22 polls.

Tension has however arisen between the PPM and coalition partner JP over the post of speaker. While Gasim announced his intention to stand for the post, President Yameen said the speaker should be a member of the ruling party as it won the most number of seats in the 18th People’s Majlis.

The Progressive Coalition won a combined total of 53 seats in the March 22 parliamentary polls, well above the simple majority of 43 required to approve presidential nominees and pass legislation.

In his speech last night, President Yameen strongly criticised the outgoing parliament, reiterating the importance of parliament’s cooperation for implementing the government’s policies and carrying out infrastructure projects.

“I want a member of our party to become speaker of the People’s Majlis in this term. I don’t want a member of another party to hijack our party,” he said.

Speaking at the function, former President Gayoom also said that the PPM needed to ensure public backing for the government.

“The government needs the sincere support of the Maldivian people at this time. We can provide that support to the government by increasing the number of members in our party,” he said.

The PPM leader launched a recruitment drive to increase party membership earlier this month.

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Vice President calls for “population consolidation”

Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen has lambasted the country’s current presidential candidates for resorting to a “divide and rule policy” to stay in power, rather than focusing on issues such as “population consolidation” which he claimed would help sustainable development.

Speaking on May 13 during the launch of the UN’s 2013 human development report, Deen argued that it was extremely difficult for presidential candidates to discuss relocating and consolidating island populations due to fears “islanders will be angry”.

However, the vice president said he believed there were ulterior motives to avoid addressing population consolidation – the practice of relocating geographically isolated, small island communities to larger landmasses.

“The other reason – which is worse – is the divide and rule policy that has been in the Maldives for hundreds of years. I hope those who are going to be on the list of presidential candidates, and politicians, will seriously think about the development of this nation and not be thinking ‘how long can I stay in power?’,” he told Minivan News.

“The whole idea of population consolidation is for the government, or the leaders whoever they are, not to control Maldivian citizens, so if they want to be free and independent they should do it.”

Vice President Deen highlighted a number of development issues and interrelated democratisation challenges he believed were vital to development, during his speech at Sunday’s UN report launch.

These issues included included the need for improving freedom of expression and democratic education to reduce inequalities. Deen emphasised “population consolidation” as an important way of ensuring this.

“It is easier to control votes if you are on small, small little islands, but it’s difficult when the population is consolidated,” stated Deen. “I strongly believe that the Maldives must have a population consolidation method.”

“Unless populations are consolidated, economically viable solutions – healthcare, education and other services and facilities – required for development cannot be sustained,” he added.

Deen claimed there were also numerous economic and social service benefits that would come from relocating people living on small islands, whom he said faced “lots of difficulties” due to limited healthcare and educational opportunities. Restricted transportation options were another concern he identified.

“Population consolidation would also reduce income and gender inequality. They would find it easier to find jobs and things like that,” he said. “I strongly believe that’s the key to a successful Maldives.”

Voter buy-offs, other corrupt practices, political polarisation and a lack of civil education were identified by Transparency Maldives, the Elections Commission of the Maldives (ECM), and the Elections Commission of India (ECI) as threatening free and fair democratic elections from taking place in September.

Additionally, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) released a joint human rights brief this April accusing the Maldivian government of failing to create conditions conducive to free and fair elections.

Relocation gone wrong

Population consolidation is a controversial issue for many islanders, given the unique cultural characteristics and strong inter-relationships each island community in the Maldives possesses.

The displacement and subsequent relocation of the entire Kan’dholhudhoo Island community in Raa Atoll following the 2004 tsunami is one example of the development challenges posed by relocating entire island communities.

“The community is still suffering tremendously,” Island Council Vice President Amir Ahmed told Minivan News.

“Kan’dholhudhoo is our motherland, however, the whole island was fully damaged [in the tsunami]. Four years after our community was split and living on different islands in Raa Atoll – Alifushi, Ungoofaru, Meedhoo, Maduvvari – or in Male’,” Ahmed explained.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) – in partnership with other nation-state donors – provided temporary shelter and food for the internally displaced in the aftermath of the tsunami, Ahmed continued.

In 2008, the bulk of Kan’dholhudhoo’s nearly 4,000 community members were eventually relocated to Dhuvaafaru Island. However, administratively the community remains under Kan’dholhudhoo, which poses a problem for voting, explained Ahmed.

The IFRC transformed the previously uninhabited island with the construction of 600 new houses, office buildings, a health centre, playgrounds, roads, and a garbage area, Ahmed added.

Unfortunately the government’s lack of community consultations, inadequate infrastructure development, and political opposition leading to local “administrative problems” has greatly degraded quality of life for the Kan’dholhudhoo community, lamented Ahmed.

He explained that the combination of too few island-level civil servants – the government mandates one per every 500 people, but only four represent Kan’dholhudhoo – and the stanch allegiance of island office employees to former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom created huge development-related problems and a lack of basic services.

“Maumoon’s people were working in the island office and they still supported him,” said Ahmed. He claims that the island office staff requested too few homes from the IFRC after the tsunami.

“They don’t know how the people suffer,” said Ahmed. “This is no ‘safe island’, there are many problems.”

“Day by day things get worse”

Currently 75 families still need homes, according to Ahmed. He explained the homes which have been constructed were meant to house a single six person family in a 2000 square foot area with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

“Instead, three or four families are living in one house. Many people are not coming back because they have no place to live, or because the living conditions are so uncomfortable,” Ahmed said.

“The constitution should provide one area of land per family, but this has not happened for our community,” he added.

Overcrowding due to the lack of adequate housing has caused a variety of societal problems, including property disputes, rising divorce rates, and children “don’t learn the responsibilities of how to live… additionally they see what’s happening to the community. Disputes are increasing,” said Ahmed.

Many of the homes were constructed near a “pond area” on the island, explained Ahmed.

“The land is not good for people to live on because the well water is bad. It has a bad smell and causes skin problems, especially for children and old people,” he explained. “Maumoon decided where to build the houses, we were not consulted.”

Although a pipeline has since been built to supply safe drinking water to the 40 families living in the area, given the overcrowding problem the water supplied is not sufficient. Thus, “a lot” of well water continues to be used.

Ahmed further explained that there is a waste management shortfall also posing a serious threat to community’s health.

“The garbage [problem] is terrible here. A garbage area was made but we cannot use it because there is not enough budget. So islanders have been dumping waste in the beach area, which is now full, so garbage is all over the road blocking vehicles from driving,” Ahmed said.

“There are also diseases spreading, such as viral fever, as well as mosquitoes and flies. And there are people living nearby this [garbage] area,” he added.

Despite these human health threats, Dhuvaafaru still lacks medicine and adequate medical facilities.

“There is no pharmacy or medicine [available]. We tried to establish one, but it is still not open,” said Ahmed.

“We have a health centre but it is without medicine. It lacks basic necessities and cannot even perform blood tests or give injections. We have to go to Ungoofaru [for medical treatment] which is 10 or 15 minutes away by speedboat,” he added.

Education and economic opportunities are also very limited, according to Ahmed.

“I am reluctant to say this, but the community is not very aware. Educated community [members] are very rare and if anyone is educated they will move to some other island because they want their children to have a quality education and standard of living,” Ahmed said.

“The community’s living standard is very dependent on the fishing industry. There are no administrative jobs, so fishing is the only way to make a living,” he continued.

“Day by day things get worse and worse,” he lamented.

“Government doesn’t listen”

Successive government administrations have failed to address the development problems and threats to the Dhuvaafaru community.

“Maumoon provided us no choices. We informed the government [of these issues], but nothing changed,” said Ahmed.

Although former President Mohamed Nasheed’s administration provided the community with sandbags to thwart coastal erosion, “now the erosion has spread to another side” of the island and the ongoing development problems went unresolved, he continued.

The island office was controlled by the former opposition who did not cooperate with Nasheed’s administration to improve quality of life for the Dhuvaafaru community, claims Ahmed.

“We informed the coup government, but they don’t listen. [President Mohamed] Waheed makes many promises, but has taken no action,” he added.

Regarding whether island relocation and “population consolidation” are beneficial for island communities, Ahmed believes that if the government will actually provide the proper infrastructure for communities then the policy would be beneficial.

“I think most people would follow that, especially the younger generation. If there are good facilities I’ll go there for sure,” Ahmed declared.

“I’m happy now because everything is new [on Dhuvaafaru], but when I enter the house I want to leave immediately [due to the overcrowding],” he added.

In March 2012, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) sent a corruption case involving MVR 24 million (US$1.55 million) to the Prosecutor General’s Office concerning the Disaster Management Centre and a housing project carried out on Gan in Laamu Atoll, following damage suffered in the 2004 tsunami.

The Maldivian government is obligated under national and international law to guarantee the human rights and protections enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which include access to adequate housing, water, healthcare, and political participation.

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Inequality and climate change threaten Maldives’ human development improvements

The UN’s 2013 global human development report has highlighted inequality and climate change vulnerabilities as major concerns for the Maldives, despite the country’s “significant economic growth” in recent years.

“Although the Maldives’ performance in human development in the South Asian region is quite commendable, the country continues to face a number of risks and vulnerabilities,” said UN Resident Coordinator Tony Lisle during the report’s launch on Sunday (May 12).

The 2013 UN human development report is entitled: “The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World”.

The findings have positioned the Maldives in the medium human development category, where it was ranked 104 out of 186 countries and territories.  The ranking is based on the human development index – a composite measurement of life expectancy, education, and income.

According to Lisle, the country’s human development index value increased 30 percent between 1995 and 2012, an average annual increase of about 1.6 percent.

The Maldives graduated to the status of a middle income country in Jan 2011.

However, when inequalities are factored into the Maldives’ human development index ranking, the country’s “value falls to 25.2 percent indicating that addressing inequalities continues to warrant significant national attention in the years ahead,” he added.

“Risks and vulnerabilities faced by the Maldives include effects due to climate change and of course the financial global crisis, which is still with us,” said Lisle.

“The nation has also been maturing in its democratic processes, including the creation of independent bodies, the establishment of a multi-party political system, and rolling out of decentralised governance.”

The 2013’s human development report focused on issues such as increasing access to schools, improving access and quality of health services, promoting inclusive growth and putting an emphasis on improving conditions for women globally.

“These are also qualities espoused by the government of Maldives, which deserve our vigorous support,” said Lisle.

To ensure this support, he explained that the Maldivian government was currently collaborating with the UNDP and UN country team to formulate the second national human development report for the Maldives, which will focus on inequality and vulnerability.

“We must go beyond GDP to measure development. The UNDP defines development as a process of enlarging people’s choices to realise their potential and enjoy the freedom to lead lives they value. Some will do better than others with the choices they have, but the challenge is to ensure everyone has a fair and equal chance, equal opportunity to improve quality of life,” said Lisle.

Meanwhile, Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen, also speaking at the launch, criticised government policy failures for failing to correct numerous development challenges in the Maldives.

Deen therefore emphasised the need to learn from the UN’s latest human development report to address the sustainable development challenges posed by geographically isolated, small island populations.

Women and children suffer

Although Deen proposed “population consolidation” – relocating small island communities to larger landmasses – as a means to improve democratic practices, he also emphasised the benefits of sustainable development.

He also highlighted the need to listen to communities and young people, while providing them opportunities to express themselves in “forums and different platforms” to utilise their ideas for development and to prevent “wilder activities” from occurring.

“The best method is to let a person express himself or herself and not to hide the real problems of the country, domestic violence, child abuse, and many other issues related to gender. Unless we accept that we have these problems, we cannot bring changes,” Deen said.

“Quite unfortunately we pretended we did not have these problems. We pretended these things never existed in our society. ‘What a wonderful clean society we have’, but the truth is we have these problems and people suffered, children suffered, women suffered,” he lamented.

Deen explained that “sadly” many presidents and politicians have not directly addressed problems within island communities or Maldivian society generally to bring about change. As a result, the recent democratisation process, including the related constitutional changes, have led to protests protests regarding development and human rights issues.

“The only way for our country to progress is to listen to the people. We have learned that the voice of the people must be heard,” Deen stated.

The vice president also discussed the “very important need” to educate the populace about democracy. He stated that it was “almost impossible” to run a democratic nation with “changing constitutions and presidents”.

“The mindset the people must understand what democracy is and how we can sustain it. Unless we do that we won’t be able to sustain a democratic system,” said Deen. “Educating the people is extremely important, more than building harbours.”

Vice President Deen added that economic inequalities have been perpetuated by the lack of planning, job creation for youth, and and a proper tax system.

“We didn’t plan ahead. what has happened to us today, our situation, is not something that has happened overnight. It took time, many years,” he said.

He emphasised the need to establish a “proper tax system” to reduce economic inequalities and bridge the disparity between the wealthy and less fortunate.

“The huge level of discrepancy can create social unrest, misunderstandings, hatred, anger, and frustration and these are bad for any nation,” noted Deen.

“I’m not a believer of expecting donations and support all the time. These funds must be utilized in a context as a catalyst for sustainable development,” he added.

“Please understand the Maldives will never never go back, we will go forward,” Deen declared.

“I hope the presidential candidates seriously consider these [human development] reports when they are deciding their manifestos and bringing changes to our beautiful country,” he added.

UN human development recommendations

Giving her own summary on the 2013 human development report, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative Azusa Kubota said there were four key areas needing to be addressed by governments to facilitate sustainable human development.  She said these factors included enhancing equity; enabling voice and participation, managing demographic change and confronting environmental challenges.

“We all know environmental threats such as climate change, air and water pollution, natural disasters, deforestation affect everyone globally, but they hurt poor countries the most,” Kubota added.

Sustaining human development gains is difficult in the face of “natural disasters which are increasing in frequency and intensity that cause enormous economic damage and loss of human capacities,” she said.

“International governance structures can be held to account, not only by member states but governance by global civil society which is on the rise.”

At the national level, Kuota explained that human development required support by a “developmental state” with an activist government and a political elite that sees record economic growth as their primary aim.  She added that job creation and investing in people’s capacities to sustain the gains of economic growth via health, education and other public services were also key elements. Additionally, governments need to actively nurture sectors that would not otherwise emerge to do global competitions and incomplete markets.

Kubota further emphasised that to sustain human development “substantial public investment, in [social services] not just infrastructure, as well as bold proactive, targeted social policies are required. It is not just economic growth alone.

“Human development doesn’t come without targeted policy interventions and carefully crafted national visions,” said Kubota.

The developed north and developing south are connected “more than ever”.

“The challenges faced by the multilateral system in response to the rise of the south [do not pose] a false choice between globalism, regionalism, and sovereignty. We all have to work together. Human development is not a zero sum game, we all benefit equally,” Kubota concluded.

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Population consolidation, rightsizing public sector essential to address budget deficit: Auditor General

A policy of population consolidation together with effective measures to reduce the public sector wage bill is necessary to address continuing budget deficits, the Auditor General has advised parliament.

The recommendations were made in a report (Dhivehi) submitted to parliament with the Auditor General’s professional opinion on the proposed state budget for 2013.

Auditor General Niyaz Ibrahim observed that of the estimated MVR 12 billion (US$778 million) of recurrent expenditure, MVR 7 billion (US$453.9 million) would be spent on employees, including MVR 743 million (US$48 million) as pension payments.

Consequently, 59 percent of recurrent expenditure and 42 percent of the total budget would be spent on state employees.

“We note that the yearly increase in employees hired for state posts and jobs has been at a worrying level and that sound measures are needed,” the report stated. “It is unlikely that the budget deficit issue could be resolved without making big changes to the number of state employees as well as salaries and allowances to control state expenditure.”

The report noted that the bill on state wage policy recently passed by parliament would not address the issue as the legislation focused “mainly on reviewing salaries of state institutions.”

The Auditor General’s Office contended that “major changes” were needed to right-size the public sector and “control the salary of state employees and expenditure related to employees.”

The report observed that compared to 2012, the number of state employees is set to increase from 32,868 to 40,333 – resulting in MVR 1.3 billion (US$84.3 million) of additional expenditure in 2013.

This anticipated increase included 864 new staff to be hired by the Maldives Police Service (MPS) and Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), the report noted.

In light of “existing inefficiencies” in the state, the Auditor General contended that hiring more staff for various independent institutions would be “a waste of public funds” as it would divert resources from service provision and development projects.

“Moreover, we note that increasing the number of employees would lead to an increase in office expenses and expenditure on employees’ retirement and pensions, decrease the number of people left to do productive work in the private sector (decrease the labour force), and slow the growth of the country’s economy,” the report stated.

Details of the state’s wage bill included in the report showed that MVR 187 million (US$12 million) was budgeted as salaries and allowances for 545 political appointees in 2012.

In addition, MVR 1.98 billion (US$128.4 million) was to be spent on 18,538 civil servants; MVR 999 million (US$64.7 million) on 6,244 police and army officers; MVR 362 million (US$23.4 million) on 1,455 elected representatives and attendant staff; MVR 485 million (US$31.4 million) on 3,372 employees of independent institutions; and MVR 345 million (US$22.3 million) on 2,714 contract staff.

In 2011, the Finance Ministry revealed that MVR 99 million (US$6.4 million) would be spent on 244 political appointees annually as salaries and allowances.

According to the weekly financial statement released by the Finance Ministry, recurrent expenditure as of December 20, 2012 has reached MVR 8.9 billion (US$577 million). Roughly half was spent on employees.

Fiscal imbalance

A report by the World Bank in May 2010 identified the dramatic growth of the public sector wage bill as the origin of the Maldives’ ongoing fiscal imbalances.

According to the report, increases to the salaries and allowances of government employees between 2006 and 2008 reached 66 percent, which was “by far the highest increase in compensation over a three year period to government employees of any country in the world.”

“Between 2004 and 2009, the average monthly salary of a government sector worker increased from MVR 3,223 (US$250) to MVR 11, 136 (US$866),” explained a UNDP paper on achieving debt sustainability in the Maldives published in December 2010.

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom responded to growing calls for democratisation with “a substantial fiscal stimulus programme” of increased government spending, “much of which was not related to post-tsunami reconstruction efforts.”

“This strategy led to a large increase in the number of civil servants from around 26,000 in 2004 to around 34,000 by 2008 or 11 percent of the total population. Thus the government simultaneously increased the number of public sector workers as well as their salaries,” the paper noted.

Consequently, recurrent expenditure – wage bill and administrative costs – exceeded 82 percent of total government spending in 2010. Presenting the estimated budget for 2013, Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad noted that more than 70 percent was recurrent expenditure.

“As in other years, the highest portion of recurrent expenditure is expenditure on [salaries and allowances for government] employees,” Jihad explained. “That is 48 percent of total recurrent expenditure.”

Population consolidation

Meanwhile, the Auditor General’s report noted that the government planned to carry out 406 projects under the public sector investment programme (PSIP) at a cost of MVR 3 billion (US$194 million).

The Auditor General however contended that the projects were formulated “without a national development plan” and that there was “no relation between the PSIP’s purpose and the proposed projects.”

While the stated purpose and policy of the government was population consolidation, the report stated that the harbour, sewerage, land reclamation, housing, coastal protection and other projects were included in the budget “without a plan” for integrating island populations in urban centres.

The Auditor General’s Office therefore advised against carrying out the projects planned for 2013 in the absence of a plan for population consolidation.

The report observed that “the main reason the state’s recurrent expenditure has increased” was developing 200 inhabited islands “as single units” and attempting to provide healthcare, education, social, administrative and legal services to small island populations.

The report stated that pursuing a policy of population consolidation was “essential”.

It added that the return on the investment for relocating populations of small islands would be seen in savings from the state’s budget for providing services to geographically dispersed islands.

While implementing such a policy could prove difficult, the Auditor General’s Office believed that “a national consensus” could be reached on the need for consolidating population.

Moreover, a glance at the state’s expenditure showed that continuing fiscal imbalances or budget deficits were “inevitable” if such a policy was not formulated, the report stated.

Deficit

The Auditor General explained that the fiscal deficit in 2012 was MVR 1.5 billion (US$97.2 million) more than forecast because of a shortfall in projected revenue from taxes and import duties as well as higher than budgeted expenditure on government companies and subsidies.

However, while revenue from Goods and Services Tax (GST), import duties and tourism land rent was lower than budgeted estimates, income from Business Profit Tax was more than expected at MVR 613.3 million (US$39.7 million).

The government also spent MVR 862.3 million (US$55.9 million) from the 2012 budget to settle bills outsanding from the previous year, the report noted

The Auditor General’s Office observed that revenue from the newly introduced GST was not enough to offset lost income from reducing and eliminating import duties.

“As a result of the change to the state’s taxation system, income to the state declined by MVR 495 million (US$32 million),” the report noted.

As reducing import duties had not resulted in a noticeable drop in prices, the Auditor General recommended reviewing the changes in consultation with the relevant authorities and amending the tax laws.

The 2013 budget

The Auditor General observed that the budget proposed for 2013 was 2.7 percent higher than 2012 and 19 percent higher than 2011.

An estimated budget deficit of MVR 2.33 billion (US$149 million) was to be financed by MVR 1.15 billion (US$74.5 million) in foreign loans and MVR 1.17 billion (US$75.8 million) in domestic finance.

Echoing a concern expressed by MPs during the recent budget debate, the Auditor General noted that projected revenue included MVR 1.8 billion (US$116 million) expected from new revenue raising measures that require parliamentary approval.

A recent mission from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had urged the government to implement a raft of measures to raise revenues, advising that strengthening government finances was “the most pressing macroeconomic priority for the Maldives.”

The measures proposed by the Finance Ministry included revising import duties, hiking T-GST from 8 to 15 percent in July 2013, raising airport service charge or departure tax from US$18 to US$30, introducing GST for telecom services and leasing 14 new islands for resort development.

On the last proposal, the Auditor General advised that the islands should not be leased without consulting the tourism industry and studying the impact of the decision in consideration of the tourism master plan.

The Auditor General concluded that it was “unlikely” that the new revenue would be collected in 2013.

Consequently, if there was a significant shortfall in income, the Auditor General warned that government revenue would not be enough to cover recurrent expenditure.

“Therefore, we note that it is very likely that MVR 509.9 million (US$33 million) would have to taken as loans to cover recurrent expenditure,” the Auditor General stated, advising that it was “necessary” to reduce recurrent expenditure by that amount before the budget is passed.

As a result of financing budget deficits with loans for the past six years, the Finance Ministry revealed earlier this month that government spending on loan repayment and interest payments was expected to reach MVR 3.1 billion (US$201 million) in 2012.

Moreover, the total public debt would stand at MVR 27 billion (US$1.7 billion) in 2012 and MVR 31 billion (US$2 billion) in 2013 – 82 percent of GDP.

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Vice President pushes for population consolidation plan

The Vice President Waheed Deen has called for the country to prioritise a population consolidation plan to foster sustainable economic development in Maldives.

With a total population of nearly 350,000, dispersed over 196 inhabited islands spread over a distance of more than 600 miles, the Maldives is one of one of the world’s most dispersed countries. The extremely dispersed population and small island communities have been long recognised as key challenges to the sustainable social and economic development of Maldives.

“Without population consolidation we cannot achieve sustainable economic development,” Deen contended, speaking to the media first time since taking office, after parliament unanimously endorsed the resort tycoon as the Vice President on April 25.

Deen observed that islands with population below 400 still demand services such as sanitation, harbors, schools and hospitals, but the distribution of such social and economic services to the remote and least populated islands is an economic burden due the state to the high expenditures.

“So where is the economy of scale?” Deen asked. “If government continues to spend on small island populations, the expenditure will turn out to be a waste.”

According to the new VP, people need to understand that they can have access to be better services under a comprehensive sustainable economic model if they live together. He identified capital Male’, Hulhumale’ and Addu city as key examples of such development.

“Divide and Rule”

Meanwhile, the new Vice President also shared concerns over several obstacles to the resettlement of the people into larger populations.

“A policy of divide and rule has long existed among us and we need to move away from this,” said Deen, well known for his philanthropic works and praised as “the founding father of local government in the Maldives” for spearheading efforts to introduce local governance through elected councils, before resigning as Atolls Minister in August, 2008.

“Getting votes in smaller populations are easier. However, if the community grows larger, influencing or controlling the people will not be easy,” Deen explained. “So, this is a very important point people needs to think about.”

He noted that detailed discussions on the matter are yet to be had with the government, but the issue remains a top priority: “I envision that people of Maldives will live in 25 to 30 islands. Each island will be of twice that of Hulhumale’. Around 60,000 to 70,000 will live on each island. This a a dream I see. I will try to make this dream come true.”

Currently, around 130 islands have populations less than a 1000, and others between 1000-6000, while Male’ accounts for one third of the total population, where the density of the population is over 40,000 per square kilometer.

Failed initiative

Deen’s remarks today on population consolidation mark a renewed ambition to follow through on the much awaited population strategy that has been discussed for a quarter-century, but has fallen short of making any significant outcomes. The former MDP government – now replaced by a coalition of former opposition parties – had favoured connectivity and transportation, but stopped short of relocation.

Population consolidation plans originated in the 1980’s under the banner of ‘Selected Islands Development Project’. However, concerned by the inefficiency of distribution of social services and basic infrastructure in islands with small population, and counter in-migration towards capital Male’, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s administration embarked on a revised resettlement program called the ‘National Population Consolidation Strategy and Programme’, published in 2001.

Under this proposed strategy, two regional growth centers were agreed to be created serving respectively the Northern and the Southern atolls. In addition, 85 focus islands were selected to receive a high order of services; the other inhabited islands, called primary islands would receive a minimum level of services and population would be encouraged through various forms of subsidies to move toward the focus islands and the regional centers

Resettlement of nearly 17 islands were reportedly under review during the Gayoom’s last term in office, but confronted by the aftermath of 2004 Tsunami and the pre-2008 democratic reforms, the population consolidation plans were pushed to to the background. The talks ultimately disappeared from the tables following administration of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) which lobbied for a national transportation network between the islands to boost connectivity and economic progress.

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Government’s proposed grouping of islands “senseless”: Thasmeen

The government’s proposal to group islands to create new administrative island constituencies is “senseless”, claims opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali, warning of “dire consequences for the people” if administrative consolidation fails.

Public referendums are due to take place on October 9 in over a 100 islands on the government’s proposed changes to island administration under the Decentralisation Act, the landmark legislation passed in July to introduce local governance through elected island and atoll councils.

The referendums are required by article 136 of the Decentralisation Act, which states that islands could be grouped to form constituencies if the respective populations make an appeal to the president.

“Whilst best practice in democracy advocates the involvement of people and a bottom up approach, it is a shame that the government has announced this plan without consulting the people of the islands concerned,” Thasmeen writes on his personal website, adding that the party “has all along said and maintained the stance that such changes should be made only if the people of the islands are willing.”

As a result, he continues, people were not fully aware of the implications of the changes to their lives: “What will happen to the system of civil and social services? Should the school children change school? Will there be a change to their representations is local councils? How does the administrative-joining differ from physical relocation of a population from one island to the other? How would the proposed Local Elections Constituency divide work in par with the Parliamentary Constituencies, when there are crossovers?

“These are just some of the many questions that people need answers before they vote at a referendum.”

The unique culture of islands as well as geographic dispersion, he adds, are other aspects that should have been considered.

Dr Hussein Rasheed Hassan, state minister for fisheries and member of the advisory committee to the president on administrative consolidation, denied that citizens had not been properly consulted.

Gauging public opinion through an informal “gathering on the beach” would not be enough to determine either support or opposition, he explained, insisting that the government took into account a host of socio-economic factors for the proposed groupings.

“We believe the best way is to go directly to the people with referendums in a secret ballot where it will be one vote for one person,” he said.

Article 115(p) empowers the president to “hold referendums on issues of national importance”.

Island populations “will know the implications very well” before casting their ballots, Hussein Rasheed said.

“We are preparing a proposal to inform voters on the issues, including the benefits of the administrative grouping and the changes to their daily lives,” he said.

“A sinister plan”

The Elections Commission (EC) announced on Tuesday that the referendums will take place on Saturday, October 9 from 8am to 4pm in 110 islands across the country.

The government has proposed grouping 99 islands into 64 administrative island constituencies by joining two to three islands within four nautical miles, while an additional 11 islands will vote on creating city councils for island populations that exceed 10,000.

In addition to Male’, depending on the outcome of the referendums, city councils will be elected in Haa Dhaal Kulhudhufushi, Fuvahmulah and Addu Atoll.

However, the DRP MP for Kendhoo and parliamentary majority leader also argues that “it would be highly irresponsible to spend taxpayer money” on the referendums in islands with potential opposition.

“Anyone who understands the politics of the different islands would understand that some of the groupings are just non-starters,” writes Thasmeen.

The proposal to merge Lhaviyani Felivaru and Hinnavaru, he continues, reveals the “senselessness” of the plan as the industrial island Felivaru with its fish cannery does not have a settled population.

“Does this mean this is a done deal, a sinister plan of the government to gift Felivaru to Hinnavaru people ripping other islands in the atoll of its stake in the industrial island of Felivaru?” asks Thasmeen. “It sure raises questions.”

In February 2009, the cabinet decided to turn Felivaru, which houses the Maldives Fisheries Company (MIFCO) main fish cannery, into an inhabited island and the hub of the North Province.

In the intervening period, however, the government lost the parliamentary squabble over decentralisation, ending with the Act being passed in a partisan vote after MPs of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) walked out in protest.

The case of Felivaru was a misunderstanding, said Hussein Rasheed, and voting will not take place in Felivaru as the island has not yet been settled.

The state minister urged both the public and opposition politicians to “express their concerns” and “offer constructive criticism” as the issue was of national interest.

He added that the government is “open for consultation.”

“We are very grateful for the DRP Leader for their cooperation,” he added. “We understand that this has to be done in a very short period of time, but we are determined to hold the referendums before the date agreed upon in our talks with DRP.”

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