An inspired and well-integrated utilisation of land and infrastructure could have been planned to add value to the country’s appeal as a centre of island tourism of the world. It is, for the moment, the most appealing product we can sell to global markets
The proposed new political/administrative centre’s construction project called “Heritage City” in the Highlands region in Plaines Wilhems district has sparked some amount of controversy. Despite the Cabinet’s approval to go ahead with it, certain reservations have been publicly expressed about the wisdom of moving the PMO and other ministries/public administration to this new place.
What are the types of objections?
First, some of those who object have stated that, as things stand at present, the public offices intended to be moved away from Port Louis to Highlands are currently owned by the government and don’t involve payment of any rent to foreign owners of property whereas the proposed shift would implicate the government into paying rent to the foreign owners of the property. This, they say, is not becoming for a self-respecting government of a sovereign state. Money, they say, could have been used for other more important projects such as improvement of the country’s transport infrastructure.
Some others have stated that there has been no public bidding for services such as for architectural design, casting doubt upon the method employed for the selection of the chosen architect for the project. Concerns have also been expressed about the opacity of the project’s evaluation and its external financing and doubts cast as to whether it will really have the economic impact expected of it.
It is for politicians piloting the project to answer these objections, in the best spirit of democracy confronting opposing views. Let’s look at it from another perspective which has economic and security implications.
It has been stated by another set of objectors to the Highlands project that moving the nation’s political capital to Highlands would have adverse collateral impact on Port Louis as the country’s existing capital. No doubt, but Port Louis is also in need of a more sustainable vocation as a fresh and newly done attractive place rather than the waywardly crowding up it is increasingly becoming prone to by the day.
It has been said in this context that once government offices are moved away from Port Louis, the capital city will lose its shine. The government side has given reassurances that Port Louis and its harbour will be redeveloped as the country’s business, historic and cultural centre. As such, it would become even more vibrant with life and activity as a business and cultural hub.
If so, the Highlands project is not being considered in isolation; the government only has to lay down on the table how it is going about refurbishing Port Louis, a city I have spent most of my life in and which I find full of potential for the future and, that too, not only because it is lined up by beautifully sculptured mountains on one side and by the blue ocean on the other. For me, it is the incarnation of the country’s history but, as much so, the true melting pot of diverse cultures the country is enriched with and something that becomes an integral part of oneself with the passage of time.
Unfortunately, as it is the case for other capitals, the concentration of administrative offices in Port Louis since colonial days has contributed to make traffic approaching it from different parts of the country ever more dense. This is not only a source of huge amount of time wasted and pollution. It costs a lot of money daily due to the slow-moving or jammed traffic, for which we pay heavily in foreign exchange by way of additional oil imports and purchase of vehicle spare parts. Port Louis deserves to be remembered for nicer things.
It wouldn’t be stretching the argument too far to attribute to the concentration of public administration in Port Louis the distressed state in which many drivers find themselves. This leads to added misbehaviour by drivers on all roads and is possibly linked to increasing numbers of road accidents, as we notice almost every day. Any keen observer would have noticed the continuing deterioration of driving culture in Mauritius. No one knows at this stage where it will end up. Experience has shown that road congestion goes back to square one after a short reprieve as a result of non-structural touch-ups from time to time. Pressure builds up in the process and a heavy price gets paid by the victims of road accidents all over the island. The idea therefore of decentralising administration is a fair one if only it helps decongest the traffic system of the country and to steam off the impending road rage, at the least.
From the country’s perspective, however, Highlands City would serve little purpose if an existing spatial problem surrounding the concentration of public offices in and around Port Louis were simply transferred to it and its surroundings, without regard to the void so created in the lives of people. Perhaps the enhanced use of technology in public administration will ease the bureaucratic tension as would also no doubt a faster pace of execution of decisions at government counters.
Highlands City cannot therefore be merely a new set of high-class buildings for public and private accommodation outside Port Louis. It needs to be part of a comprehensive bigger plan (of which the proposed new city would be only a part) for the country that will detail out the part to be played by each of the 130 villages of the country, its four towns in Plaines Wilhems, the Cybercity and Port Louis itself. After considering all projected investment costs, resulting movements of population across regions and impact of all this on the arts and crafts of the people.
What’s the bigger plan? Will the public mass transport system be overhauled/ reinvented to such a level of decency as to make us less dependent on private vehicles to move around the country? Will there be multiple spacious entries and exits in and around the contemplated new project which should make it easy to evacuate the population of the envisaged Highlands City, in case an emergency were to block one of the principal access roads leading to or from it?
It is important to remind ourselves in this case of the riots which occurred one working day in the late 1990s after a mere road accident in Camp Chapelon, the effect of which was to totally block outgoing traffic from Port Louis to the South of the country for several hours, despite police and other initiatives. Many public officers reached their homes in Plaines Wilhems that day after midnight rather than around their usual 6 pm. Port Louis can become a trap. Anything could have happened from a security point of view.
Given Port Louis’ limited entry and exit possibilities, an incident such as this one pleads in favour of delocalizing central administration from Port Louis. We do not know what is the overall ‘open space’ plan which should spin off new benefits to the country while discarding the increasing constraints arising from more intense use of Port Louis.
It is true that governments rarely, if ever, change their capital cities. For one, the British used Delhi and Shimla alternately as the capital of British India, depending on the seasons. One should however remain open to new initiatives if these have the effect of freeing the country from continuing infrastructure and other failings. The play out of such developments however should be well integrated in advance with the bigger picture, especially for a small place like Mauritius to help us make optimal use of our available land space. The piecemeal approach almost always ends up with much higher reconstruction and deconstruction costs.
Hopefully, the Highlands city project was arrived at after considering all alternatively available marginal lands for cement construction. For, Highlands is part of our most fertile land heritage. Not only this, an inspired and well-integrated utilisation of land and infrastructure could have been planned to add value to the country’s appeal as a centre of island tourism of the world. It is, for the moment, the most appealing product we can sell to global markets.
* Published in print edition on 22 April 2016