As a national development strategy, population consolidation is as dead as a dodo. After a quarter-century long attempt to implement the strategy in various forms and names, the time has finally come to put it in its rightful place: the dustbin of history.
The strategy originated in the mid 1980s as the 'Selected Islands Development Project,' though the word 'population consolidation' was not coined till the mid 1990s. The purpose of the project was to counter in-migration towards Male by providing 'pull factors' such as health care, education and housing in selected islands.
The strategy was a washout. When it was launched, Male population was less than a quarter of the national population. Today it is more than a third and increasing. Statistics indicate that the declining trend of island population has crossed the point of no return. Between 2000 and 2006 an estimated 22,452 people migrated from the islands to Male. This rate will accelerate further as services in the islands continue to deteriorate, ironically as a result of declining population, which has entered a vicious cycle.
When island populations decrease below a certain critical level, there would be a mass exodus from the atolls. Past experience shows that the critical level could be about 250 inhabitants, at which point basic services become near impossible even with subsidization. Cases in point are Maavaidhoo and Faridhoo in Haa Dhaalu Atoll and Dhiyadhoo in Gaafu Alifu Atoll. Inhabitants of these islands have been desperately petitioning the government for relocation.
Fehendhoo, South Maalhosmadulu Atoll, is the latest island to join the migration queue. At the time of the latest Census in 2006, Fehendhoo had 114 people living on the island. The number has now declined to 64 in just three years. (This figure must not be confused with the registered population of 206, most of who live in Male). The 43 households in the island have requested for relocation to Gan, Haddhunmathi Atoll. The reasons put forward for relocation are the usual: lack of development opportunities, lack of education. Last year the island school closed because there were no students.
In Census 2000, there were only 17 islands with population below 250. But by 2006 there were 30 such islands, indicating the rapid decline in island population. These 30 will soon be on the queue for relocation. Even large islands are not immune from population decline. In 2000 there were 17 islands with population over 4000. However by 2006 the number of such high-population islands had declined to just 9.
The writing on the wall is clear. There are few islands with any potential to develop. The island population is declining so fast that soon there will be no population to consolidate. And finally there is no money to implement such mega projects. Population consolidation failed in the past; it will fail in the future.