The rise in Chinese activity has been a cause of great concern for India. In fact, the Maldivian Ambassador to China Mohamed Faisal had said earlier this year that India was a brother, but China was a “long lost cousin”.
The Maldivian Ambassador to India, however, has a different point of view and said that India did not react on time to the development project proposals. “India was offered participation in the development projects but some of our other developmental partners responded quicker, hence they got the projects. Time was of essence and we could not have waited,” Ahmed had said in an exclusive conversation with News18.
The projects that were offered to India include the Hulhumale housing project and Velana Airport development among others.
Last year, Yameen had declared that the development partnership between Maldives and China had reached a new high point and that the latter was Maldives’ “closest development and commercial partner”. The statement came as Maldives signed a Free Trade Agreement with China.
We have labour from Bangladesh and even Sri Lanka, but around 160-180 of them are from China.
- Victor Wang
The new 25-storey building in Male, Dharumavantha Hospital, is also an example of Chinese footprint in the island nation. While the building is being built by Singapore-based Chang Hua, one could see a number of Chinese workers on site, with very little knowledge of English. A worker on the site that this reporter met briefly said he was a Chinese native who had come to Maldives for a better livelihood. The labour force at the site includes people from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China among other countries. There are about 30-40 Chinese people working on the site per day.
The China-Maldives Friendship Bridge is, of course, a mark of the nations’ “forever friendship”, as Yameen put it. The Export-Import Bank of China issued a loan to the tune of $66 million to build the bridge that will start from Male and will end at Hulhule from where the ambitious six-lane highway will continue up to Hulhumale.
The other big project in the island nation is that of Hulhumale. Around two decades ago, this used to be a reef, which has now disappeared and given way to a reclaimed island. Over 2 km in length, it is completely under the control of state-owned Housing Development Corporation (HDC) and is located 8 km off the north east coast of Male.
Touted as the first smart and sustainable city in Maldives, Hulhumale was reclaimed with the aim of providing relief to the existing congestion in Male.
What started off in 1997 now has about 40,000 people residing.
Work underway at the Velana International Airport. (Photo: Aishwarya Kumar)
While phase 1 of the island’s reclamation (of about 188 hectares) was completed in 2002, it was in 2004 that it welcomed its first settlement. In 2015, an additional 240 hectares (approximately) were reclaimed.
As of now, heavy construction is going on for phase 2 of the reclamation. Chinese signboards can be seen at various places. The island will boast of malls, community centre, hospital, high-end villas and houses for lower income groups, knowledge park and a central park.
Here too, the Chinese have a major role to play. In phase 2, China-based China Construction Third Engineering Bureau Co. Ltd is looking at constructing 7,000 affordable houses. The project includes high-rises.
Additionally, under the FTA, Maldives waived off visa requirements for Chinese and also gave them a free hand in operating goods and services in Maldives all year through and vice-versa. In the area covered under phase 1, there are various Chinese boards that one can see; restaurants, water sports facilities, etc. A worker in one such Chinese restaurant said that there were many more boards and 3-4 other restaurants in the area.
The possibility of a debt trap, considering the huge investment, is something that the Maldivian government does not worry about. The IMF has projected the Maldives’ external debt, presently 34.7%, will reach 51% of GDP by 2021.
A major portion of this debt is held by the Chinese. Former president Nasheed has slammed the ruling government over its closeness to China and accused China of land grabbing. Earlier this year, economic development minister Mohamed Saeed said he was absolutely sure that there would be no debt trap that Maldives will fall into.
Saeed’s colleagues in other ministries also seem to agree. Officials in the know-how of the Velana International Airport development project told News18 that their revenue model was strong and that the project was feasible in every way. The model included rent from the parking pace for private jets, a phenomenon which they say was not there earlier.
“We have also had more airlines coming in last year which will further go up once we have the new airport. That will of course add to the revenue,” officials further said.
As far as Maldivian government is concerned, the reclaimed land is a gold mine for them and for the country.
ameen came to power in 2013 with an agenda of development and creation of jobs. While his development strategy seems to have kicked off and has also been successful to a certain extent, it doesn’t come without concerns.
Maeed Mohamed Zahir from Maldives-based NGO EcoCare said that the burden of the development project was on the environment, something that was not the case before. He says that Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had been in power for 30 years, was the pioneer of environment conservation. His successor Mohamed Nasheed, too, did some legitimate work. Nasheed had famously held a cabinet meeting under water to bring forth the dangers of climate change.
Yameen, however, has taken a step back in this regard. “Climate change and environment conservation do not seem to be priorities for this government,” Maeed said. He cites Kulhudhuffushi as an example.
The government doesn’t realise how much damage it’s causing to the environment.
- Maeed Mohamed Zahir
“It’s an island of 12,000 people and the government is reclaiming the land which is full of mangroves for an airport. Now, there is an airport which is about 30 minutes from the island. Why does the government need to build another one?” asked Maeed.
The government’s policy, he added, doesn’t go with the national understanding of conservation which is to continue to protect and nurture mangroves and marine life. The current government, Maeed told News18, plans to reclaim 10 new lagoons which means 10 new artificial islands will come up above the reef ecosystem.
“The stress on the reef is already there because we had the El Nino in 2016 after which more than half of the reef was affected. The government is not going for sustainable methods and only wants to go in for hard infrastructure solutions for political gains,” he said.
One of the Chinese restaurants seen in Hulhumale. (Photo: Aishwarya Kumar)
The Yameen government does have a Climate Change Policy Framework with five goals, which include sustainable financing, low-emission development future, developing adaptation actions and building appropriate infrastructure, leading role in international negotiations, fostering sustainable development.
However, the literature available with various ministries associated with the projects mentioned above, like the Hulhumale project, does not detail out how the project has affected reefs and if at all reclamation has impacted the marine life.
While it does mention sustainable living and officials at the HDC also said that solar panels were being installed on the rooftops of buildings (work of which had started), there was still no word on the impact on marine life.
The environment ministry, however, paints a pretty and sustainable picture.
At a recent press conference in Male, environment and energy minister Thoriq Ibrahim said that the government was committed to conserving the environment and its precious marine life.
Talking of coastal erosion, Ibrahim said that over the last four years, 30 km had been protected on several islands. “If that doesn’t happen, the islands will inundate and the infrastructure will be destroyed,” Ibrahim added. He further said that waste management facilities were being taken care of on each island, something that has never happened in the previous governments.
Maeed, however, took to this with a pinch of salt. “It’s all for votes. The government doesn’t realise how much damage it’s causing to the environment. Along with development, they also talk of climate change but end up damaging the environment in the end. What is the point of this two-sided talk?” he retorted.