Is it time for the people to really take their destiny in their own hands and find alternative pathways?
As we commemorate the symbolic beginning of Indentured Labour from India afresh on 2nd November, that is, tomorrow, the times are such that we must ask some pertinent questions and reflect on where we are heading.
It would not be amiss to ask ourselves whether our ancestors would have been better off staying back in India rather than make the long, perilous trip into the unknown. Did they really improve their lot in Mauritius during the period of indenture, and has any such improvement been sustained or built upon by their descendants? It may be noted that the same questions can be put as regards the erstwhile slaves, and their descendants.
As a matter of fact, work on this aspect has already been initiated by historians, foreign as well as local. They have been digging into the archives to learn more about the ‘lived experiences’ of both communities in different settings – on the sugar estates, in their sparse and very humble dwellings — and have found tales of deprivation, hardship, oppression, discrimination, often associated with violence. To some extent, their culture and religion might have empowered the indentured labourers to face the hardships, but less is known regarding the slaves and their descendants about any ‘encadrement social et religieux’ that would have allowed them to overcome the same or worse kinds of hardships.
As historian Sada Reddi notes elsewhere in this paper, between 1834 and 1844 the total number of deaths among males was 8667 in a population of 54,244. In 1867, malaria killed about 40,000 Old Immigrants in Port-Louis. Marina Carter, on the other hand, found that 14% of adult males and 12% of adult females died within the first five years of arrival. Until the end of immigration, there was no major increase of the Indian population except by immigration. The conclusion is that ‘The mortality rate is a reflection of the poor working and living conditions then prevailing in Mauritius…’
Sada Reddi further notes that the majority of Indian labourers remained landless throughout the indenture period, and Richard Allen notes that in an Indian population of 166,000 adults there were only 3036 planters, adding that the agricultural census of 1930 revealed that more than 91% of the 14,495 smallholdings covered no more than 1.6 acres and the average size of Indian holdings off the estates was 2.5 acres.
It would be recalled that during his passage here in 1901, Gandhiji had exhorted the Indians to focus on education and to engage in politics. With the active support of socio-cultural movements, namely the Arya Samaj, they began to receive education, and they also became politically involved. The engagement on these two fronts by the by allowed significant progress to be registered, but they had to wait a few decades before they could graduate to middle class, secure better living conditions and obtain land holdings. Again, as Sada Reddi points out: ‘One must remember that our social mobility and improvement in the conditions of Indian labourers and the rest of the population is relatively recent; they improved only after the 1940s with the creation of a welfare state by the Mauritius Labour Party and the post-colonial interventionist state which pioneered the political, economic and social development of the island.’ He contrasts this with the situation in 1891 when, ‘of the 54,249 Indo-Mauritians (born in Mauritius) between the ages of 5 and 15, only 3666 or about 7% received education’.
However, these gains in education and political representation, and the relative improvements in living conditions should not mask the reality that large swathes of the descendants of both indenture and slavery are yet to find a firmer foothold in their land of adoption; they comprise large numbers, in the school cleaner category as flagged out recently by trade unions, and in diverse low-skills jobs, and who are still earning low salaries. In fact, according to figures released by Statistics Mauritius in May 2017, nearly half (48.8%) i.e. more than 208,700 of the 427,700 persons employed in 2016 earned up to Rs 12,000 per month. This is below the median salary of Rs 12,200 for 2016. Only 2% of the employed or some 8,554 persons earned more than Rs 75,001 per month. One can well imagine that it’s mostly the descendants of indenture and slavery that form the bulk of the low-paid employees.
On the economic front, the situation is no better. As shoppers have discovered at the beginning of this year and lately as well when they could not find their tea packets on shelves, the tea industry is almost gone. True, lately Chinese interest in the sector promises better days for the tea planters and the industry – but we will have to wait, won’t we. As for the sugar industry, it is a grim fact that there is progressive abandonment of sugarcane plantations by thousands of small planters, and thousands of sugar industry workers have been made to go through the VRS scheme.
As our correspondent Mrinal Roy had observed in an earlier article, ‘Isn’t it therefore time to stop the hollow pro-small planter rhetoric which masks the reality behind these trends? Based on 2016 crop production figures and dwindling numbers of small planters, only some 9% of the Rs 700 million earmarked recently to prop up the sugar sector will benefit the small planters owning up to 1.99 hectares (4.92 acres). 2.3% of this sum will benefit producers owning between 10-99 hectares (24.7-244.6 acres) whereas producers owning more than 100 hectares (247 acres) and millers in the corporate sector will obtain some 82% of the sum. Every government measure tom-tommed on a small planter rhetoric but applicable generally to all producers is apportioned accordingly.’
Besides, hundreds of small retail shops have closed down, giving way to supermarkets which are sprouting all over the place. Even transport for that matter is being taken over by the corporate sector, with contract buses eroding the space occupied by taxis – ‘marrons’ or otherwise. The result of all these disruptive happenings in these diverse sectors – sugar industry, retail, manufacturing, etc — is an increase in casual labour among those aged 50 and above, a worrying social phenomenon which adds to the many other social ills such as alcoholism and drugs that translate into gruesome crimes of passion and other forms of violence.
To cap it all is the type of political engagement that has emerged from the present generation, a far cry from that of the couple of decades starting with the 1920s, which was of the disinterested type and which sought to empower those earlier generations. While all the blame cannot be laid at the feet of politicians, they must definitely take a large part of the responsibility for the feeling of let-down by the people on the part of today’s so-called leaders – so consumed are they by their own ambitions and passions to outmanoeuvre each other with the sole objective of gaining power and enjoy the spoils. They make the right noises by the population, but in truth once elected, they become oblivious to the challenges they raised on behalf of the masses. They become indifferent to the hardships of the latter and the bleak future that looms for them, condemned as they are to the whims of an economic and socio-political order that relegates them to the lower end of the inequality gap.
What, we must ask of our prospective leaders, do they propose as a viable, sustainable ‘projet de société’ for the country? Or is it time perhaps for the people to really take their destiny in their own hands and find alternative pathways?
- Published in print edition on 1 November 2017
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