How is nature-dependent Maldives so ahead of us?

Maldives uses boulders to control the seaProthom Alo

Being born in Sandwip, I have an inherent affinity towards islands. I have visited all the major islands of the country. I have lived in the island-state Singapore and taught there. It was only natural that I have always been drawn to the Maldives. Towards the start of the nineties there was even an opportunity to join a SAARC conference at the Maldives capital Malé, but two conferences were consecutively postponed because of India-Pakistan tensions. So I never got to go. But all remorse is over now that I've visited Maldives on a personal trip on my own accord.

Alongside the heavenly beauty of the country, three things caught my attention in the Maldives. One, almost everyone there was fluent in English. Two, the people there are cheerful, friendly, humble and tourist-friendly. Three, the roads are safe. I saw women walking around alone late at night in the tourist areas.

The reason why everyone speaks good English there is because the medium of education is English. While it started with teachers from Sri Lanka teaching English there, now the local people carry out that task. Children start going to school from three years of age in Maldives. The schools teach general math, Dhivehi (Maldivian language), a little Arabic and Quran studies. At this stage they are introduced to the English alphabet. They learn ethics at home and schools. Nature and the environment have imbibed them with cheerfulness, a friendly nature and respectful behaviour towards women.

The Maldives is the smallest country in Asia. Along with the sea, it is 90,000 sq km, of which land totals only 298 sq km. It's average height above sea level in 1.5 metres. According to the 2022 population census, Maldives has a population of around 550,000. Given these statistics, Maldives can’t be compared to other countries. Even so, here are some comparative figures.

Maldives is an upper middle income country. In 2022, Maldives’ per capita income was USD 10,880, India’s was USD 2,390, Bangladesh’s USD 2,820 and Bhutan’s USD 3,512. Other than being an upper middle income country, the Maldives also has lower income inequality. Maldives’ human development index value is 0.747 and it ranks at 90. India’s HDI value is 0.633 and its ranks at 132. Bangladesh’s HDI value is 0.661 and it ranks at 129.

Maldives allocates on average 14.4 percent of its budget or 4.4 per cent of its GDP on health and 13.1per cent of its budget or 4 per cent of its GDP on education. Bangladesh’s allocation for health and education is 2.63 per cent and 2 per cent of the GDP respectively

Now back to the heading of this article. Nature and the salty sea water are really their basic resources. A total of 28 per cent of their GDP and 60 per cent of their foreign exchange come from the tourism sector. The next important sector is fisheries. Both these sectors are dependent on nature and the sea. So how did the Maldives become an upper middle income country with a high human development index and low income disparity?

Educated people, educated leadership

Almost a hundred per cent of the people in the Maldives know how to read and write. Other than the former president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, everyone is highly educated. The present president Muizzu has a PhD degree in civil engineering from the UK. So they understand that the sea is their only resource. They must protect and develop this to survive. They bring trained workforce from abroad in this regard.

Of the total 557,426 residents of the Maldives, 178,156 (around one third) are foreigners, and over 90,000 of them are Bangladeshi. While in the Maldives I saw Bangladeshi bankers, construction workers and businessmen; Indonesian tourist workers, Sri Lankan teachers and cooks, Spanish snorkeling trainers, and Dutch resort managers. Maldivian and foreign skilled workers together have made the Maldives into an upper middle income country.

High allocation in education and health

The World Bank’s recent public expenditure review report shows that the Maldives allocates on average 14.4 percent of its budget or 4.4 per cent of its GDP on health and 13.1per cent of its budget or 4 per cent of its GDP on education. Bangladesh’s allocation for health and education is 2.63 per cent and 2 per cent of the GDP respectively. Just these figures alone indicate the priorities of the Maldives and Bangladesh. That is why the Maldives ranks 90 on the Human Development Index and Bangladesh 129.

Alas Sandwip!

The land area of the Maldives is 298 sq km and that of Sandwip 762 sq km. If the sea is added, then Maldives’ area is 90,000 sq km. That is why Sandwip came to mind upon visiting the Maldives. Other than 88km of roadways, the entire communication system in the Maldives is dependent on waterways.

Alighting at the Velana international airport, we went by boat to our destination at Maafushi Island. It was a comfortable boat, accommodating 63 persons including three sailors. The ‘Gulf Craft Touring 48 Series’ boat was made jointly in the United Arab Emirates and Maldives. It has four 250 horse-powered outboard engines, capable of running at a speed of 68 knots. It was equipped with a radar, walkie-talkie and all that was required for a sea trip. Each passenger had modern life-jackets. Amid inclement weather and a choppy sea, we reached Maafushi Island in 45 minutes, from one shore to the other. It cost 20 US dollars, with no extra charge for luggage.

The difficulties of travel to Sandwip came to mind. The trip starts from the Kumira ghat by van or boat (depending on the weather), then wading through muddy waters to be packed into a speedboat like poultry or livestock, with no life jackets, radar, walkie-talkie or such equipment required for a marine vessel. Then the trip, at the risk of our lives. And the same predicament once we reach the other side!

Jetty construction and management

Boulders have been used to control the ocean waves, with space for vessels and ferries to navigate. The vessels and ferries unload passengers and cargo at the jetty by the road. It is the same in all the islands. But in Sandwip only now ghats (jetty) are being made. First one was made at a cost of Tk 100 million (Tk 10 crore), then another at the cost of Tk 400 million (Tk 40 crore) and now one costing Tk 3 billion (Tk 300 crore). Simply wasting public money! Without controlling the sea at first, this is a sheer waste, only possible in Bangladesh.

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Reclaiming land from the sea

Hulhumalé has been formed near the capital Male by lifting sand from the deep sea to create the island. After a successful first phase, the second phase has now commenced. A large number of ‘chars’ or shoals have arisen from the sea around Sandwip. If some of this land could be reclaimed at places, it is possible to connect it the mainland in Noakhali. There is no such initiative in Bangladesh. The Dutch assisted in reclaiming Hulhumalé. We make delta plans with the Dutch, but nothing that comes to the benefit of the people. Bangladesh can learn about sea management from the Maldives.

In the next installment, I hope to look into the problems of the paradise on earth, Maldives, particularly their tensions with India.         

*Muhammad Fouzul Kabir Khan is an economist and former secretary

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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