January 10, 2012

Celebrate the home island

My last visit to my home island brought sadness. The Male model was being enacted piece by piece. High rises were beginning to raise their heads above the digga trees, few cars plied the coral streets compacting them to an impermeable base that sealed and pooled falling rainwater into deep muddy puddles that stagnated, few motor cycles on languid rounds during the day, transformed by late night into a noisy horde rushing around with pillion-rider girlfriends. Will history have to repeat itself, and is this the only model of urban development we have to follow? Let’s go into a national reverie of refection and not be in a hurry to follow the leader.

True, being an island nation, our tropical environment has been a boon for the rise in our wealth over the past close to forty years. Yes, it’s been that long since our tourism boom began. The value visitors attribute to Maldives is its pristine beaches, the lush palms and the balmy environment – a sea change from the cold and grey winter weather and skies of Europe; that was the beginning. Of course later, as Maldives became a famous travel destination, other countries too joined in the rush, and it was no more to get away from the grey skies but just to enjoy the sea and sand and the corals for what it was – bounty in the tropics.
So our sustenance quickly became tied to the value of our environment. The price the tourist paid for the visit was the peg of value they attached to it, which was very high given that some pay thousands a night to spend under our star spangled skies. The wish for their resort to be as natural as one could possibly be, for most don’t want a repeat of the plush hotel environment they left back home. Our most sought after holiday berths may perhaps be our most naturally inclined in decor and surroundings. These hotels manage their solid wastes, their water and their sewage in ways that hurts the surroundings the least. For the owners, it is about managing their bottom line. More value for money. For the tourist it is the difference; a celebration of what they didn’t have at home.

The irony is that the rest and recuperation others come flying into Maldives for a thumping fee can be had by us for a trifle, if we could only learn to appreciate the potential for health and wellbeing available in our own home islands. If we can for a moment appreciate the fresh air, the stretch of open space, the close feel of family and friends, and the relaxed mood of our home island surroundings; not let it degrade into muddy puddles we have to clean up now by ourselves because we have opted for a democracy that places the onus of such responsibility only on us – not on a government in Male (if democracy and decentralization is to be comprehended in its right sense). True, there is a natural draw towards what is different and that is perhaps why most of us are drawn to Male, our urban square mile of chaos. Just as those tourists are drawn to the difference of the environment that Maldives is to what they left – for a while, I would hope that the stay in Male for many of us would also be a sojourn rather than a re-location.

With decentralization, the move to the islands must begin – to make our Councilors accountable and the governance system viable. We need an enhanced sense of responsibility to make the land we were born in a place of reverence, so that we can bring up a new generation of Maldivians to love their surroundings as if it was sacred. For regional development, following the urban chaos of Male should not be the choice. We need to think anew by reflecting on why following Male’s development model would be a folly. Reflect and confirm in our hearts the advantages, not just of the economic but of the social and spiritual that will be gained by our proximity with our loved ones, our home communities, and the priceless bounty of our environment. We need to build the social and cultural ties that bind us as a nation; not be just gung-ho on the economic wellbeing that inevitably brings competitiveness, envy, jealousy, division and conflict.

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