Bigger Challenges


When the flag of Mauritius was flown for the first time at the Champ de Mars 54 years ago, it was not quite clear what the future of the country would be. We had just emerged from a tumultuous election the year before in which the population appeared to have been torn asunder into two distinct blocs, led respectively by the LP and the PMSD, at loggerheads with each other on partisan lines, compounded by the racial/religious divide.

It goes to the credit of political leaders of that period that, despite the almost desperate situation which prevailed all around at that time, they battled it out to gain independence. There was an ideal to pursue, but it commanded a price. The political leadership assumed the risk; it was leadership of the highest kind, one that would not be deterred from facing the high risks associated with an island without natural resources and an economy which Professors Titmuss and Meade had cautioned as from 1961 to be heading towards a Malthusian debacle if corrective measures/development programmes, which they themselves had proposed, were not initiated.

The task of transforming the country was formidable, all the more so as a sizeable portion of the civil service administrative and technical cadres had emigrated in those uncertain years. The force of circumstances was such that, once independence became a fait accompli, the leader of the PMSD was persuaded to join hands with the Labour Party in an overturning political coalition to help prevent the rift which could have brought the country’s economy to its knees. This was when the economic diversification of Mauritius was launched in a world with pervasive trade barriers and restrictions. Textiles and tourism were the first blocks to emerge.

The backbone of the new diversification drive was a committed civil service, determined to overcome its lost cadres and the challenges of a new order. A spate of new institutions, namely in tertiary education and manpower training, beefed up their numbers and capacities. We were fortunate that we had such a strong and ingenious civil service. Had it not been for their path-finding sound contribution and the enlightened leadership of the political heads, we could have lost our way. The country’s infrastructure was only emerging but people started getting into new jobs in both the public and private sectors. The process was slow at first but it gained pace as markets opened up in the West. In the next two decades after 1968, textile factories were implanted in almost all parts of the island. Simultaneously, pioneering beach hotels were soon joined by others capitalising on the Western markets, particularly France and Reunion Island, where we had established a high-end brand for sea, sun and sand vacations. That helped the growth of our national carrier, MK, when political meddling in management was still restricted.

With these developments came some desirable diversification of forex sources, a basket that was complementary to the politically negotiated sugar prices with the UK and its EU successor protocols. From less than $500 in 1968, our GDP per capita reached $8,627.8 by the end of 2020 (according to the World Bank) – that’s no mean achievement for a country that has gone on diversifying its economic base. Economic development coming in the wake of independence has improved the lot of most households, nothing comparable to the bleak outlook of 1968. Cyclones however awful and damaging, no longer had the crippling effects of Carol in 1960 and we could better ride them out with the evolution from wood/tin sheets to blocks and concrete and the start of social housing projects.

Communal tension, which had raised its head in the pre-independence period, was also doused by the sheer scale of economic uptake as well as the universally applicable public policies followed by the country’s various governments. Sectarianism could have thwarted our progress along the path of progress but it didn’t because successive governments after independence have ensured that all have equal non-discriminatory access to the free education and free health care that governments have instituted since independence. Social welfare benefits are likewise available to all across the board without discrimination. Tolerance and better mutual understanding of diverse customs, beliefs and traditions in this multiracial place has been a key factor towards the national consolidation we see today.

However, the world we see today holds out similar if not bigger challenges than those faced by leaders of the independence era. New problems have today cropped up: growing inequality in Mauritian society, bleak employment prospects for the young, the crowding out of large swathes of the population from the housing market due to skewed public policy in matters of real estate development, etc.

The protectionist regimes are a thing of the past, and we have today to compete with the rest of the world. Our financial centre has lost part of its attraction with the revision of the double taxation avoidance agreement between Mauritius and India. It is also the object of constant attack and occasionally threatened of being blacklisted. The sugar sector, which is increasing being seen as the ‘sunset industry’, is being propped up by public finances, and a large proportion of small planters have already abandoned their lands in the wake of falling sugar prices on the world market, non-availability of labour and higher production costs. Its diversification into energy/electricity production and molasses and rum distilleries is still beset by revenue sharing issues. The education sector is not doing well despite all the reform/restructuring programmes initiated by succeeding governments. The continuous decline in the performance of this critical sector is a matter of serious concern for a country which for the past twenty years has been aspiring to be a knowledge hub.

The pandemic has thrown a big spanner in the works and we now face the very real uncertainties of the Ukraine conflict and crisis in Europe. They have come at a time when our national reserves may not provide the central bank any leverage on currency depreciation and inflation, both of which are hitting hard at consumers. Public debt has ballooned as authorities continue on an infrastructure spending spree rather than curtail or postpone some. Our port and maritime management, including the national coast guard, which are vital in any island, let alone one that ambitions to straddle 2m km2, are shockingly below par. Drugs and narcotics keep fuelling a black market and take their dramatic social toll. New challenges and problems stare us in the face then, and we will need to pull out all the stops to deal with themwhile at the same time tackling gnawing inequality and the disparities that threaten to undo all that has been achieved so far.

* Published in print edition on 11 March 2022

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