It must be admitted that the situation has changed dramatically for Mauritius from what it was at independence and what it is today. The standard of living of the people has improved considerably. A country which was then seen as a basket case by many observers managed to find expression and improve the prospects of the population at large. The spill over from the good work done at one time is benefiting the country.
There is a bigger road network; the infrastructure of production has been transformed by including in it various activities that did not exist in the beginning; some of the economic activities that were initiated in the 1970s, 1980s and 2000s are still bearing fruit by keeping the country’s unemployment rate at around 8% despite the international economic downturn going on since the past five years; sugar factories have been centralised in a bid to generate economies of scale and diversify their lines of production; the country’s rate of literacy has shot up; the economy’s interface with other economies has gone deeper; the services sector (tourism, financial services) has emerged as an important contributor to the economy; the digital age has not left us altogether behind; of late, even shopping malls have been multiplying at an incredible pace while real estates have been selling out at unbelievably high prices all over the island .
Most of this is good inasmuch as it is a sign that things have been moving on. Of late, however, our major preoccupations as a nation have fallen to such pedestrian levels that one is forced to ask whether it is at all reasonable to carry on at this pace. Where politicians should have carried confidence to the nation that we will overcome the obstacles to our progress come what may, we are exposed to quite a different scenario, an unsettled state of affairs in which we keep jumping from one trivial issue to another.
What use is it in the national build-up to display sterile and mutually neutralising personal clashes amongst the country’s leadership when there are more serious issues to tackle? What purpose does it serve if politicians and part of the media proceed on a seemingly unending warpath against each other? What end is served by displacing the debate from larger national issues to personal lifestyles of political leaders? Where exactly will we end up along this distracted course if energy is spent deflecting attention from what really should be of concern to the nation as a whole at this juncture?
There is a feeling, as it was the case when the so-called electoral reform was hot on politicians’ agenda, that focus on principal issues has shifted away from where it should have been. A sound leadership knows how to set aside unimportant matters so as to concentrate on matters that should actually be claiming our full attention.
Take the issue of water supply. We know that weather cycles are becoming increasingly unpredictable. Last year, we were at the end of the tether as regards water supply across the island. Inadequate water reserves were forcing the authorities to ration its supply sharply until only lately, that is before the last months’ rains. The changing weather cycle should long have alerted us to build up our dams and keep them ready to collect water whenever the rains pour down. It is true that work is going on towards increasing our water storage capacity but had the policy makers and the concerned officials done their duty earnestly, all this should have been a done thing since long. There was no dearth of fiscal resources to support it. Right now, water security is still hanging up on our heads like a Sword of Damocles.
Take the issue of changing patterns in the global economy. Not only should we have taken action in the context to reinforce our food security at least to ward off price increases or shortages if it came to that. We should have planned up our land utilisation as optimally as possible. We may be getting a lot of FDI still but what we needed to do was to make it attractive for the FDI to go fairly substantially into overhauling our agricultural system completely towards greater self-sufficiency by combining it with an adequate water supply. We could have thus created a model of development which we could have exported as investors in the regional economies, giving better span to our economy. We don’t appear to have any such plans to get over our insularity. Yet those who helped the Mauritian economy take off in the past did exactly that: bring up structural changes in the nature of local production so you can go and meet the external market competitively.
We have seen how vulnerable our services sector can be. Other than diversifying away from the current concentration of activities in the sector, we could have overhauled the sector by re-skilling our service providers and opening up new counters. This kind of re-skilling and re-positioning has in the past made us ready to welcome newer activities to our shores. It requires a reorientation of our educational objectives bringing marketplace and lecturing halls in one common effort to meet each other’s expectations. Investment should have gone forcefully to reinforce a mutually supporting pattern between shifting market demands, on the one hand, and academia and training centres, on the other. Where the national airline is relevant to keep up the scope of the services sector, it should long have abandoned its gas guzzling aircrafts and modernised its fleet. How can it do that, if its management itself is taken up in dealing with administrative vicissitudes? Too many hiccups of the sort have made us lose our basic sense of direction.
As pedestrian concerns have kept up occupying the main stage, we have kept accumulating a serious deficit in giving strong direction where most it is needed. A self-renewing leadership system should have given the country an intelligent, strong, achieving, committed and motivated civil service which could have been innovative enough to take us to greater heights in all essential domains. They would have pushed politicians into realisations for the sake of the country. The current situation shows that we have fallen short even on this reckoning. The challenge should automatically have brought to the front stage public servants with a strong sense of vision and execution of projects. We appear to have run out of scope at this level.
At this stage, we need to collect ourselves and take those actions that can tangibly advance the scope of the economy. The economy needs to be given flexibility to operate itself out with the highest amount of efficiency. Surely, we cannot do so by carrying forward all the deficits from the past. There is a need to reinvent. This kind of overhaul goes beyond gossip and the deplorable image being cast of both the country’s media and politicians as at present. One wonders where there is so much concrete work to be done, how we can afford to divert so much of national energies to trivial considerations. We will be a great nation if we can stem this tide.
* Published in print edition on 8 February 2013