By-election weeks before a general election: A bluff?

Political Caricatures

By L.E. Pep

A by-election just weeks before general elections does not make sense. The government does not want to reveal its cards and it thinks that it still holds some aces that may trump the opposition in one way or another. That the government chose not to surrender whatever element of surprise it had left by not announcing the date for the by-election, underscores the desperation of its plight. It has been forced to show its hands and the two remaining aces it holds are the Metro and the 2019-20 Budget.

It will try to leave everyone guessing for a few months longer by first presenting a voter-friendly budget in June and then calling the election just after to maximise the impact of the Metro, which will be up and running by that time, and the big spending election bribes of the 2019-20 Budget.

One can safely presume that the hoopla and theatrics that will accompany the budget will be designed with the election in mind. With some fiscal headroom available for a populist election splurge, it is quite likely that it will not hesitate to go for a scorched earth policy of raising astronomical sums of money to dole out sops to sway voters in its favour.

This grand plan is to surge to victory on the back of a modern transport infrastructure that shows the way to a “modern, liveable, vibrant and environmentally-friendly Smart Mauritius” and the largesse of the budget. That has been tried elsewhere and it has sometimes resulted in a backlash with voters registering a substantial protest vote against the government or any other candidates that do not understand the importance and urgency of using the country’s resources responsibly. If we can prevent the government from wasting the labours of the people under the pretence of taking care of them, we will be able to secure our future.

* * *

Metro Express: The amateurism continues!

Several residents and MPs made a peaceful march in the streets of Quatre Bornes on Sunday last. They are concerned about the metro’s impacts on adjacent areas and the residential community. They want the authorities to engage in consultations with the inhabitants on the potential impacts and ways to minimise and manage the inconveniences of these impacts, and to safeguard the amenity of residents and businesses.

If a proper EIA had been carried out, it would have taken on board most of the issues like the transportation, environmental and other impacts, and the costs of the transit and supporting facilities that are being considered. A draft EIA would also have had an alternative scenario or the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA), detailing the alternatives considered, identifying their associated operating and capital costs. It would then have been circulated for public review and comments. If we had gone through this process, we would perhaps have avoided all the issues that are being raised by the public now. But the authorities were more bothered about rushing through the project in a bid to complete it before the forthcoming 2019-20 ballot.

The absence of dialogue between the authorities and the local communities has led to a situation of mistrust. The traffic is already a mess in many areas and they believe that the metro project, as undertaken under the current plan, will aggravate the hectic traffic hassles and disrupt the lives of the region’s residents and the environment. The residents are convinced that a better alternative would have been the installation of spans on pillars, which would have cost an additional Rs 600 or Rs 700 million. They believe that would have been a more comfortable and environment-friendly solution suitable to the topography and characteristics of the adjoining areas of Belle-Rose and Quatre Bornes.

Because of the amateurism shown by the Ministry of Public Infrastructure on different road projects, whether it is the Terre Rouge-Verdun road, the construction of the bridge between A1 and M1 motorway or the metro project, some residents have requested that works on the Curepipe and Quatre Bornes route be postponed until the next general elections.

 * * *

The water problem: electoral promises of a 24/7 water supply?

The situation degenerated in Curepipe on Saturday, March 23th. The inhabitants had been without water for several days. They took to the streets to express their anger at the water cuts in their area. Some inhabitants also complained that about the muddy water that was coming out of their faucets. The police and the Special Supporting Unit were called in to calm down the protesters.

Some years back the country was facing one of its worst droughts.

The LePep alliance jumped on the occasion to promise a reliable 24/7 water supply. Almost five years later, in spite of abundant rainfalls, the faucets are still dry in some areas. It has to be said in all honesty that our dear Ivan Le Terrible, more interested in the Rs 7 billion Combined Cycle Gas Turbine project, has failed to live up to his promises despite the fact that in 2015 , government had used the windfall gain on petroleum to invest in water infrastructure.

Mr P.N., a blogger apparently quite knowledgeable about issues relating to public utilities, thinks the CWA is in need of a new model. The inability of the CWA in providing a 24/7 water supply is the lack of commitment and the absence of strategic planning over the years and successive governments are responsible for that.

Proper strategic planning would have ensured the implementation, over the years, of the following measures covering (a) rainwater capture by enlarging the capacity of existing reservoirs, by making new reservoirs and by reducing sedimentation, (b) wetlands protection, (c) improvement in irrigation efficiency, (c) water conservation by promoting water stewardships (for e.g. preventing people from wasting a lot of tap water in cleaning up their concrete yard, pavements and sidewalks), (c) water-use efficiency like incentivizing the use of water-efficient household appliances such as washers, dishwashers, proper toilets and lawn sprinklers that use a low amount of tap water, (d) the cutting of leakage in distribution and improvement in water recycling facilities, (e) rational differential pricing – low water tariffs encourage wastage while higher consumption per capita should be billed at higher marginal tariffs, (f) fair distribution – why is there minimal supply or no supply at all in some areas contrary to the swimming pools of hotels, seaside bungalows, and luxury villas which are amply supplied by the CWA?, (g) gravity-fed irrigation system, and (g) desalinising of seawater while ensuring that the technologies involved in seawater desalinization are sustainable and that they do not contribute to more water scarcity.

 “The CWA’s business model needs to be reviewed. The new ideas floated have included privatization, a foreign strategic partner with capital and expertise to improve management, and reform of the organization to ensure greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness in operations. Whatever the merits of those options, something needs to be done.”

With climate change, countries across the world are facing the problem of water scarcity. However, there is no doubt that it is possible to mitigate water stress in the future. But we have to start addressing it right now.

* * *

 An acting president overstepping his boundaries

Men make the institution. Acting president Barlen Vyapoory does not appear to fall in that category! The social networks abound with negative comments on his decision to ask Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo to rethink his decision to resign. They think that he has overstepped his boundaries.

Some bloggers have compared his ambivalence to the firmness displayed by Sir Harilal Vaghjee in January 1977. Heeralall Bhugaloo, the Minister of Education of the Labour government, had just submitted his resignation to the then speaker, Sir Harilal Vaghjee. In a bid to avoid this resignation, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam phoned the Speaker, with the consent of Bhugaloo. Sir Harilal made this reply, which is now highly regarded by one and all: “I’m afraid, Prime Minister. I’ve already got the letter. I’ve already opened it. He has got to resign.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have people of such calibre anymore…

* * *

The president of the MSM : is it another gaffe?

What a cacophony in our foreign policy! It is directionless. We had a Minister of Foreign affairs who was inexistent. It is no surprise to see our roving ambassador for the Saudis stepping in to grant a certificate of good conduct to prince Salman.

During his recent visit to the Kingdom, as reported by the Saudi Gazette of March 20th, Showkutally Soodhun, praising the important changes being witnessed in Saudi Arabia, added that “Not many individuals have the capability to take initiatives and work for the future. The crown prince is a dynamic youth who has a lion’s heart, the strength of a mountain and the potential for success. He will bring growth to the region. For the first time in 25 years, I notice strong changes that the people are happy with. This helps establish harmony and peace around the world, whether in Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan or India. He is exerting great efforts in many fields.”

Wouldn’t such statements impact negatively on our foreign policy? The statements of many African leaders reveal more of a careful balancing act and many of them had shunned the Saudi investment forum in October of last year over the Khashoggi affair and its struggle for influence in the horn of Africa. Keeping a low profile on the Saudis would have been a better option. Can anyone please tame down our over-zealous Soodhun?

* * *

Queries on Public Sector Debt

Many people are increasingly concerned about our debt level and our MPs have raised some PQs not only on the level of debt but also on the manipulation carried out in the presentation and computation of the country’s debt data to the government’s advantage.

The latest statistics show that our Public Sector Debt (PSD) has reached 64.5% of GDP as at December 2018. A new row has been added to Table I on PSD – the Consolidation adjustment with respect to Government Securities held by non-financial public corporations. A new row in Table I of PSD shows that some Rs 3 billion of short-, medium- to long-term Government Securities held by non-financial public corporations are being netted out of PSD. This means that, without this consolidation adjustment, PSD would have crossed the 65% mark. We have reasons to believe that this is yet another of those colourable accounting that have been used recently by the Ministry of Finance to fiddle with the PSD figures.

To be line with the definition of PSD in the Public Debt Management Act and to meet our commitment to subscribe to the IMF’s SDDS Plus (Special Data Dissemination Standards Plus) by 2018/19 – that is if this timeframe still holds –, the MoF should start compiling the data for General government, financial and non-financial public corporations and Social Security Funds (NPF/NSF). Moving to the new IMF standard will mean that the PSD will increase by around 8-10% of GDP. That is, as at December 2018, a more comprehensive measure of our PSD would have shown a high figure of 74.5% of GDP.

* * *

 VL leaves the boat: Why?

The resignation of Vishnu Luchmeenaraidoo (VL) has curtailed to some extent the government’s options and may have increased the risks for the government. If the Prime Minister does not send a strong signal to his MPs, other members of his government may take advantage of the situation and may start blackmailing government by threatening to resign.

And why did Vishnu resign? Was it only a just a question of being marginalised or was there more to it? Readers will recall the Yihai International Investment Management Ltd which was involved in some imbroglio involving the SIC. Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo had lots of hope that this project would go ahead but it was nipped in the bud by the ex-Minister of Financial Services, now leader of the Reform Party. Next came the port project – the creation of a fishing port – which was announced in 2016 and would have been financed by a private Chinese company. But it appears that following pressure from another friendly country, the project was dropped. And Vishnu was not too happy about that.

Those in the know suggest that since he did not form part of the so-called ‘Kitchen Cabinet’, the projects coming his way became increasingly sparse and he ended up becoming a mere spectator. In the meantime others were having a feast. Ignored and humiliated, he was left with little choice but to leave the boat where he was not even allowed on the upper deck to take part in the important decisions, strategic moves as well as the intrigues of the day.

* Published in print edition on 29 March 2019

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