Cyclone Belal: where is ministerial accountability?

Scapegoating career civil servants for wrongdoing without a proper inquiry is not good for the efficiency of public services. It sends a wrong signal…

By Prakash Neerohoo

In any parliamentary democracy, the minister responsible for any portfolio is accountable for what happens under his or her watch. He or she is the first person to resign when something egregious happens within their area of responsibility.

In other countries, we have seen ministers resigning from office after a catastrophic event or a big scandal. Recently, in Ontario, Canada, the Minister of Land resigned after his ministry awarded leases of Crown Land to developers in suspicious circumstances. A few years ago, in India, a country that seems to be a reference for us in some areas, the Minister of Transportation resigned after a major railway accident causing death.

In Mauritius, there is a tendency for ministers not to assume responsibility for what happens under their watch. They always blame external circumstances for poor ministerial or departmental performance. Sometimes, they engage in buck passing to identify a scapegoat for a wrong decision.

The latest example of this “modus operandi” is the case of the director-general of the Meteorological Services (Ram K. Dhurmea), who was apparently asked to resign following the decision not to issue a Class 3 cyclone warning on the morning of Monday, January 15th. People went to work on Monday morning and were caught off guard by the heavy rainfall and subsequent flooding on the roads.

Under section 10(1) of The Mauritius Meteorological Services Act 2019, the responsible minister (i.e., the Minister of Local Government and Disaster Risk Management) cannot avoid accountability or liability for what happened on that day. This section states that the “Minister may give such directions of a general character to the Mauritius Meteorological Services, not inconsistent with this Act, as he considers necessary in the public interest, and the Mauritius Meteorological Services shall comply with those directions.”

Surely there were some communications between his Ministry and the Meteorological Services as to when to issue cyclone warnings and in what sequence. One would be hard-pressed to believe that the director-general of the Meteorological Services acted on his own, considering the level of government control over all public institutions.

An inquiry is needed to investigate the circumstances that led the Meteorological Services (MS) to delay a Class 3 warning on January 15th. In his defense, the director-general should speak out to clear the air and save his reputation. He started doing that on January 16, 2024, in a letter addressed to the Secretary to Cabinet and Head of Civil Service, wherein he stated that he “was instructed to step down against my will.” Scapegoating career civil servants for wrongdoing without a proper inquiry is not good for the efficiency of public services. It sends a wrong signal to those civil servants who want to serve in public service.

The public needs to know:

(a) what specific forecasts of the cyclone’s trajectory MS had originally made based on observations and available information,
(b) the progressive sequence of cyclone warnings (class 1, 2, 3, and 4) from Saturday to Monday that MS originally planned to issue,
(c) any timing adjustments done to that original sequence of warnings after consultation with the government, and
(d) the rationale for the final sequence of warnings issued from Saturday to Monday.

Clarifying those issues is critical to understand what went wrong in the process of consultation between MS and the government, whether there was a divergence of views between the two parties and whether MS acted independently based only on scientific data.

The public needs to know the truth because the cyclone has had a huge impact on people’s life, economic activities in general, and housing conditions for those affected by flooding.

The cyclone has taken a heavy toll on some towns, especially the Capital, with heavy rainfall that caused massive flooding reminiscent of the 2013 flooding. Fortunately, there were not more than two deaths (according to the latest information), but the damage caused by water runoffs to many vehicles on the road is consequential for many people. Insurance companies would be called upon to compensate car owners for the partial or total loss of vehicles provided the vehicle was insured against all risks, including acts of nature.

Belal’s widespread impact has also revealed the country’s vulnerability to natural events. The country was caught flat-footed by heavy flooding, which shows the inadequacy of emergency response planning in the event of a cyclone. The land drainage system does not seem to be working effectively to canalize excess water runoffs. The government has invested billions of rupees in the construction of drains across the country. It’s time to do a value-for-money audit of these infrastructure projects to ascertain the true costs and benefits of public investment in infrastructure.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 19 January 2024

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