52 years after Independence, it is high time to get rid of obstacles that hinder progress for the greater good of the country
By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
The political will to promote a fair distribution of wealth was put forward by the most outspoken politicians in the Labour-led government since 2005. Democratisation of the economy permeated all discourses and was the buzz formula for a solution to the huge disparities in income and wealth that afflicted the population at large.
“While the general outlook was that of a country set on the road of progress during the past decades, with new road infrastructure, airport, shopping malls, luxury residential units and mediclinics sprouted here and there, huge disparities in income continued to create glaring gaps mostly in land acquisition and housing – an issue all governments have shoved under the carpet…”
Policy makers somewhat managed to devise ways and means to open the economy to ambitious entrepreneurs and facilitate investment in a few sectors. Lands were made available for agricultural development and new stakeholders were empowered to go for diversification of the sector and venture into the business of locally processed agricultural products at a higher level. However, the policy of pursuing with the private sector’s projects, which ended up covering vast tracts of lands with luxury villas and apartments initiated in 2004, raised doubts as to their relevance in the long term. It still remains questionable to this day.
Job creation benefited mostly foreign workers. Juicy contracts went to the biggest construction companies. Commercial banks thriving and expanding mostly on deposits of workers from different professional and social categories provided low interest rates to investors in the property development projects. A percentage on sales of every construction unit went to state coffers whilst new companies hailing from the club of sugar barons reaped most of the profits.
Successive governments from 2005 onwards have given their blessings to the numerous projects of covering fertile lands with concrete. No in-depth assessment has been made about the long-term benefits for the country and communicated to the public.
The construction of the new airport met with public approval during the 2010-2014 mandate despite drawing criticisms from mainstream press. Similarly, criticism was levelled at the building of a new highway, but it was instrumental to improving transport and alleviating road congestion and bottlenecks during peak traffic hours. The building of Caudan Waterfront by big business during the 1990-1995 mandate was seen as a transformation of the harbour front into a concrete jungle and also met with harsh criticisms from the then Opposition. Many years have been wasted with the dilly-dallying of successive governments as regards the light rail transport system with opposition parties bristling at the innovation.
The public is attuned to the politicking and bickerings on every project put forward by the ruling party. What should matter is the economic upliftment of the people, their overall development and purchasing power regardless of which party is at the helm.
No media spokespersons and big business barons raised a finger to claim higher wages for workers. Elderly people invested all their monies in the secondary education and higher studies of their children, and life or private health insurance policies were the luxury for only a few. This category of the population was rewarded with a meagre Rs 3500 monthly pension for years. No media and corporate business gave a thought to a rise in old-age pension.
While the general outlook was that of a country set on the road of progress during the past decades, with new road infrastructure, airport, shopping malls, luxury residential units and mediclinics sprouted here and there, huge disparities in income continued to create glaring gaps mostly in land acquisition and housing – an issue all governments have shoved under the carpet.
The crux in 2020 is: what mechanism is impeding the democratisation of the economy? A related question is whether and which business groups have the financial clout to dictate terms to the government and hold it hostage to corporate interests? Further, whether other business groups can make headway in the ocean economy and new technologies? Would the ‘blocage’ have to do with the corruption of politicians by private companies, as the St Louis business deal would suggest?
What is it that pushed the 2005-14 government to shelve the grand project of democratisation of the economy? Does a 300-year privileged position in the economy make it impossible for others to overtake the front runners? A situation which has led to the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few families. Investment in big property development projects, shopping malls and future smart cities is a way to feather the nest of rent seekers.
Bright science students devoted years of serious study in engineering at University of Mauritius only to be faced with few job opportunities in the country. The young engineers have had to put up with low-paying jobs in factories where their real worth is not recognised. They are also part of the people of this country who wish to contribute to its development and progress, and get decent salaries to acquire a home and start a family. Democracy is also about enhancing social development and creating opportunities for different categories of the population. It is a pragmatic approach to development and progress. It cannot be reduced to a sentimental stuff to be vociferated angrily in favour of those who wail on a permanent basis.
What should undergo a radical change to prevent big business from dictating terms that meet their own interests is a most significant question. Otherwise, the situation will remain unchanged for decades to come. Billions in Mauritius Investment Corporation are being coveted by sharks of all hues in the big business sector. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few families is a major issue that has to be addressed with a view to creating opportunities for other players in a small country. What is required is a radical paradigm shift through investments in the most productive and innovative sectors by businessmen from Asia, namely India, Japan and Singapore.
The idea of democratising the economy has not been aired in protest marches. The focus here and in the so-called diaspora has been the call with an ethnic undertone expressed in a most vulgar langage to ‘b….li deor’, a euphemism for an infamously biased slogan of the late 1960s. 52 years after Independence, it is high time to get rid of obstacles that hinder progress for the greater good of the country. A most unhealthy and vicious situation which creates the possibility for financial power to blow hot and cold, manipulate gullible sections of the public and pitch one group against another has to be dealt with squarely and boldly.
* Published in print edition on 25 September 2020