In a controversial move, the Government of Maldives has decided to lease uninhabited islands for economic activities, sidestepping the traditional bidding process. A regulation published by the Economic Ministry on May 18, 2023, has prompted serious concerns over transparency and potential corruption.
Under the new regulation, the President can now categorize uninhabited islands as industrial, earmarking them for lease. A list of such islands is to be published in the government's gazette within 90 days, along with the details of the parties leasing the islands.
However, critics of the policy argue that it paves the way for corruption and nepotism. The new rules allow parties to submit unsolicited proposals to the government, which can then choose to award the island lease. This lack of a competitive, transparent process raises the specter of favoritism and misuse of power.
The current landscape of leased islands already paints a grim picture, with numerous elite Maldivian families known to exploit such islands for personal gains. Despite leasing these islands for "industrial purposes," many are instead being used to develop luxurious holiday homes. This misuse raises doubts about the true intention behind the new legislation and its potential for abuse.
Under the new rules, island leases will carry a land rent above 1/10 of Maldivian rufiyaa per square foot per year. These leases can last up to 21 years, with the option for an extension nearing the end of the term that could extend the lease period up to 50 years in total.
The newly published regulation creates a potential vacuum of accountability, providing an opportunity for unsolicited proposals that defy the tenets of transparency and fair play. By allowing the government to award any island to anyone, it sets a dangerous precedent. This unchecked power can foster corruption and lead to an imbalanced distribution of national resources.
There is a clear need for an oversight mechanism to ensure that these economic activities serve the interests of the nation, not just the select few. Transparency, fair competition, and good governance should be the guiding principles for any policy, especially one dealing with the nation's precious resources.
As the Maldives progresses towards a sustainable and inclusive economy, it is imperative that every effort is made to build a system that promotes transparency, curbs corruption, and ensures equitable growth. A proper bidding process for leasing islands and stringent regulations on their use could be a step in this direction. Only through such measures can we ensure that the Maldives’ pristine islands are used for the nation's benefit, rather than becoming the playthings of the powerful elite.