Daylight Robbery

These days we are exposed to the much-abused expression of “daylight robbery”. In fact since our high school days we had known what daylight robbery meant – when we are overcharged for an article or a service rendered be it during day or night; it would be daylight robbery if we are made to pay Rs 400 for a pound of tomato.

While journeying in one of these double-decker tourist buses in London, we would be lucky if the guide would point out to us some obscure multi-storey buildings in the metropolitan with some of its windows bricked or barricaded. And the explanation would be that since the 17th century, under King William 111, a tax was levied for the number of windows we could have in our mansion. This became known as the Window Tax! The more windows we have the more we pay – we could not enjoy the daylight and the fresh air of the kingdom without His Majesty having his share of pound! If someone bought a house and could not, or refused to pay, then it would be better to have his windows closed by bricks, so as to stay within the law. Which law, practiced in England, Scotland and France, lasted for about two centuries. Of course the British subjects of that time abhorred that law; and possibly thought that their Majesty was cheating them of God’s good daylight and fresh air, hence committing daylight robbery.

Some of us might like to split hair, and complicate issues. If we could have 20 windows in our manor and pay windows tax for only 10, then we could be looked upon as robbing His Majesty’s daylight. One wonders which is the correct interpretation, though one can fancy the bitter Britons of centuries ago murmuring in their party gatherings that their king was robbing them of their birthrights. It was only in 1916 that ‘daylight robbery’ came to be used in its present sense.

And so we Mauritians are having our own homegrown allegedly “daylight robbery”. Some of us would have been ‘tricked’ by smart insurance agents into signing on the dotted line for high interest returns. But others could boast, with a tinge of justified pride, of their higher IQ for having seen through the various “schemes”, and for having refused to play that game. While most banks were giving 5% interest p.a., how could someone else promise 8 to 12 % instead?

However, we must take into consideration the fact that here we have a well-established institution of 45 years old, supposed to be opened to all government agencies’ scrutiny, which had been honouring its commitments for the past decades. Who of us laymen could in the circumstances have suspected that there would be any ‘anguille sous roche’? Most of us are not financial experts who could have been in the secret of the workings of an insurance firm; we have obeyed our blind faith and invested our earnings.

If the educated were taken in so anyone less so could be excused for having participated. Let’s not forget our American friend Bernard Madoff, and the likes of Lehman Brothers, who in this very 21st century got away with billions, under the very nose of the American authorities – those who could boast of the cream of all sorts of experts and administrative watchdogs.

Legal Loopholes

But we forget too often that we live in a society, and whoever speaks of ‘society’ implies the promulgation by it of laws and rules, which are never perfect and have loopholes. And if we are told that there are many law professionals who believe that the art of successful living lies in exploiting those very legal loopholes, would we doubt that most probably some big firms employ legal geniuses to advise them how to fish out those loopholes, exploit them –and live happily ever after? Survival of the fittest, modern version, what!

Talking of legal loopholes may remind some of us who have had the opportunity to travel to India of having seen Touring Talkies; these are cinema facilities which must, according to the law, be moving around the country after a certain specified time so as to cater to the people’s leisure, specially the villagers. So the manager of such a Touring Talkies would pitch his makeshift building at a given place and set a wooden or dried bamboo hedge all round. After one year, say, he has to move, according to law – hence the name of ‘Touring’.

So what would the manager do – specially if the profits are high and the rustic audience is most loyal to his enterprise? We have been told that he just sets about to move his bamboo hedge boundary, say, one to two meters to the left, while leaving the main building intact. This ”arrangement”, according to the Indian written law, would satisfy the definition of movement, displacement or “touring”. And the following year the manager, yet again, moves the hedge two meters back to the right! So we end with an immobile Touring Talkies! And a perfect legal loophole to be exploited by businessmen. One can only ask whether that legal hole has been plugged.

In the recent BAI problem, we came to learn that any financial enterprise or insurance company could not invest more than 10% of its capital into other business ventures which are “related” to it; then the details started to flow in – years ago it could invest 10% in each of those businesses. And by this standard it could end up investing 70% of its capital funds in 7 other companies. That was a loophole. So new rules were given out only two years ago: it could shift only 10% to ALL of its other “related” companies. And we are told that this would apply if the holding company is listed on the stock market. And now we learn that it was not – and as such it is no longer a maximum of 10% that should have been invested, but a maximum of 5%! Our laws were deficient, and it appears that someone has taken advantage of that fact.

So, we can ask whether if X had not exploited a certain loophole in our law, would someone else have also not done the same? There might have been, and so we would still have been investing into high yielding risky schemes.

The Solution

The question, finally, is what can we, as citizens, do to prevent a repetition of this scam? Can we have more intelligent politicians with less hidden agenda, like Lee Kwan Yew; can we ask our business men to be less greedy, and our law and financial men not to dig too deeply for legal loopholes, can we ask our legislators to have rational laws to prevent connivance between some politicians and businessmen – so as not to cheat the less fortunate; can we ask everyone to stop playing that ‘survival of the fittest’ game?

Have we actually seen the last of a supposed sophisticated ‘Ponzi’ scheme in our country? Most probably not; we are dreaming and being naïve – because we humans will not change overnight, for the simple reason that we are programmed by evolution to change very slowly indeed. We may have laws – but who will see to it that they will be applied at all time to every defaulter indistinctly?

So we just hope that we will gradually have a better educational system and social justice practices to motivate all of us to be always on the alert, so as to eliminate the abuse of our present democratic system. Who will be that honest Mauritian — that politician, that king-philosopher — who will rise to the occasion to lead and bring those changes? Or should we go on with our daydreaming?

 

* Published in print edition on 1  May  2015

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