By TP Saran
Far from wanting to sound pessimistic about the future of the country, we must nevertheless take cognizance of the several authoritative views that have been and continue to be expressed by stakeholders who are not only concerned but actually worried about the state of affairs in the country and that does not forebode well for its future unless we change course before it is too late. In fact, it may be that we are already on that downward path, and the primary condition to stop that slide is a determined political will.
Unfortunately, for one, the latest list of freebies (another pension raise with promise to level it to the minimum wage quantum, completely free tertiary education for all, a PRB package in the offing among others) that are being accorded to win over the electorate and retain political power seems to be going in the opposite direction to putting the country on the right path. On both the social and economic fronts the picture is not reassuring, what with a tendency to revive old demons in the former and the absence of any new orientation in the latter.
This is at a time when there are several serious issues that are affecting our present with foreseeable impacts on the future that do not seem to interest the mainstream parties. Among others, they relate to the environment, urbanisation, the incestuous relationship between government and big business, the latter’s stranglehold on all sectors of the economy and its focus on real estate development and construction, the creeping encroachment of our public beaches, so-called smart city projects which are going to be mostly of benefit to expatriates who are creating quasi-apartheid clusters that exclude Mauritians out of their own territory!
Besides, the private sector has been promoting a culture of conspicuous consumption, a trend which is trapping many Mauritians in a debt spiral as they are even borrowing to gratify their artificially bloated appetites, with nigh a thought for their future for which they need at least some savings. This follows the populist trend that is being officially endorsed through the freebies which, with other debts piling up and revenue diminishing what with FDI flows to India having been severely curtailed, means that at national level too the debt is accumulating. It has already reached 63% of GDP and all the indications are that it will increase, with the consequences of Brexit looming on the horizon as well as a not-so-rosy economic scenario for the world. In fact there is an apprehension of another financial crisis similar to that of 2008.
It is small interest groups that are raising their voices on specific issues that have to do not only with our public goods such as beaches, but also with the day-to-day life of the citizens. The mainstream parties are too busy with private sector and business interests to pay attention to these concerns, their main one being how to be in power for as long as possible so that they can milk the state through their cronyism, nepotism and corruption which have become institutionalised and systemic.
As at now, there is no clear-cut indication that things are about to change radically for the better for the majority of citizens of the country, what with the concentration of power and of wealth riding in tandem. Especially as regards land and real estate, acquiring a plot of land and buying a house at an affordable price is a dream for a majority of young Mauritians. They are effectively being denied access to land which should rightfully be available to them in the first place.
The democratization of the economy that Labour Party had trumpeted when it was in power did not come to be, and there is a paucity of information about the fate of the 2000 acres of land that the government then had acquired from the private sector. These and other related issues need to be revisited and further pursued because they concern the economic livelihood and well-being of large swathes of the citizenry. The type of development that is taking place, especially in the real estate and big construction sectors are one-off investments that are not sustainable in the long term in the sense that they create jobs. There is a need therefore to shift from this ultraliberal and ultracapitalist model of development to one which is more compatible with the needs, expectations and just aspirations of the people – which, we believe, is what democracy is all about.
For a good while post-Independence we’ve had a welfare state model of development that also granted space to the private sector and the market economy. We cannot deny that this model did serve us well until at least three decades ago, bringing about relative prosperity and allowing many to rise with the tide. Somehow, however, we have gone off the path, and there has been a growing nexus between the government and the private sector and big business. Worse, it would seem that the government is buckling more and more to favour the latter’s interest.
Let us make it clear that we are not so naïve as not to realise that it is the private sector that creates jobs, and that government cannot generate as many jobs as are needed for the population. It is well known that there are sometimes hundred if not thousands of applicants for a single post or a few posts. Rightly, therefore, successive governments have emphasized that expansion and consolidation of the PME sector must be a fundamental strategy for the country. And yet they have not really walked the talk, and the PMEs have not flourished as much as they ought to have. In effect, according to Eric Ng, well-known author and economist who has given an interview in last Sunday’s Weekend, the PME sector has been captured by big groups, denying opportunities for the small scale entrepreneurs, the tourism sector being a glaring example.
It’s the government’s mandate to oversee the production and distribution of wealth in an equitable manner, meaning which benefits a maximum number of people. This it does through legislations and regulations and the setting up of institutions which enforce these without any fear or favour. It is the government therefore which has to choose the economic model that will function within these laid down norms and parameters, and support those developments that will provide opportunities of employment on a sustainable basis. As our interviewee of this week, Dr Vassantt Jogoo explains, economic growth and environmental protection are not incompatible, and there is no need for trade-offs between the two for this to happen, since environmental protection often implies technology upgrades which are largely to the advantage of the private sector. This is the kind of win-win situation that any future aspirant to power must ensure, and as the year rolls out there is just about enough time to think it through based on information already available and documents prepared by the small interest groups which can be used as a basis for a blueprint.
The question is, which party is willing to do that, to do a serious reflection on a model of development that will be ready to face the coming Brexit and world disorder? And then present it to the people well ahead of the next election? That is the kind of party that people are hoping for. The field is open but limited.
* Published in print edition on 8 February 2019