On 12 March 1968, when the flag of Mauritius was flown for the first time at the Champ de Mars, it was not quite clear what the future of the new emerging country would be made of. We had just emerged from a tumultuous election the year before in which the population appeared to have been torn asunder into two distinct blocs at loggerheads with each other on partisan lines compounded by the racial/religious divide. Unemployment stalked high. Upwards of 20% of the population had no steady work occupation and there was sparse prospect of ever getting employed even at very low levels of occupation. Government finances were in bad shape, having been supported so far by grants from the UK. The whole campaign of the anti-independence party, the PMSD, rested on the argument that an independent Mauritius did not have the economic wherewithal to survive.
The main thing we produced at the time was sugar. Ups and downs in its international price depressed the already weak sustenance level of the population. The majority of the people lived in conditions of dire poverty. Despite the passage of cyclones Alix and Carol in 1960, which flattened the country, the majority of houses in rural areas where the bulk of the population lived were rough and ready thatched houses supported on wooden poles. Some could afford a bicycle as a means of mobility; others could not. Families grew in the vicinity of their dwellings, wherever they could, some staples (sweet potatoes, tapioca, vegetables, bread fruit, brede mouroung and fruits of different sorts) as a fallback in case there was nothing else. Those who lived in shacks near the sea had their fishing lines and hooks to keep them going. Only those who were employed in the public service and lived mostly in towns and their suburbs were less exposed to depressed economic conditions.
It goes to the credit of political leaders of this period that, despite the almost desperate situation, which prevailed all around, they battled it out to gain independence. In modern language, this is called risk-taking. There was an ideal to pursue. It commanded a price. This price consisted of transforming this ramshackle state of affairs into shape. The political leadership assumed the risk. It was leadership of the highest kind, one that will not be deterred from facing the high risks associated with an island without natural resources and an economy which Professors Titmuss and Meade had qualified as from 1961 to be headed for a Malthusian debacle.
The task of transforming the country was formidable. The force of circumstances was such that, once independence became a fait accompli, the leader of the PMSD was persuaded to join hands with Labour in an overturning political coalition to help prevent the drift which threatened to bring the country’s economy to naught. This is where the economic diversification of Mauritius was launched in a world that was still heavily barricaded by pervasive trade barriers. Textiles and tourism were the first blocks to emerge towards this national reconstruction.
The backbone of the new diversification drive was a core premium and committed civil service, trained by the preceding British government in the art of delivering concrete results. We were fortunate that we had such a strong and ingenious civil service which was listened to by the country’s political leaders. Those civil servants listened politely to what the political leaders had to say but they were men and women who also had ideas of their own. They were men and women of conviction who had the finesse and skill to convince politicians to change course if only to get to better results. They would brook no red tapes nor drive any agenda for satisfying their personal egos. Had it not been for their path-finding sound contribution, we could have lost our way. Had this tradition not been upheld subsequently by a few star performers in the service, would we have ranked today among the best countries in the world in various domains such as the ease of doing business, our good name as a clean financial jurisdiction, the global competitiveness index, good governance, etc.?
The country’s infrastructure (roads, port, airport, water, electricity, schools, hospitals) was put on the path of improvement before and after independence. This made it easier for goods and the people to move places within and without. People started getting into new jobs in both the public and private sectors. The process was slow at first but it gained pace as markets opened up in the West. In the next two decades after 1968, textile factories were implanted in almost all parts of the island. From not a single unit in 1968, some 500 textile units were in operation by the mid-1980s. By 1987, there was full employment in Mauritius. From less than $500 in 1968, our GDP per capita stands today at around $10,000, no mean achievement for a country that has gone on diversifying its economic base. Economic democracy coming in the wake of independence has improved the lot of nearly all households, nothing comparable to the bleak outlook of 1968.
Communal tension, which had raised its head in the pre-independence period, was also doused by the sheer scale of economic uptake as well as the universally applicable public policies followed by the country’s various governments. People had learnt the lessons of 1968 when communal clashes had flashed out their real destructive force during a brief stint. Sectarianism could have thwarted our progress along the path of progress but it didn’t because successive governments after independence set down a fair platform towards everybody. All have equal un-discriminated access to the free education and free health care that governments have instituted since independence. Social welfare benefits are likewise available to all across the board without discrimination. Tolerance of diverse customs, beliefs and traditions in this multi-racial place has been a key factor towards the national consolidation we see today. We have free media, which acts as a safety valve to help vent out pent-up feelings, if any, to preserve the serenity of a performing economic and social framework.
It is important to know where we have come from. What we see today as the country’s production infrastructure has not been achieved by chance. Much hard work has gone into it and still is. The world we see today holds out similar if not bigger challenges than those faced by leaders of the independence era. We are blessed that we don’t divert our energies to deal with the kind of havoc we are seeing in the various countries of the world assailed daily by insurgencies and even civil wars. Few will dispute that there has emerged a national identity free of imperial interference binding us together during the past 45 years. As time runs in, this sense of national identity is growing, not shrinking.
The technology, which is commonplace today, is pointing out the kind of transformation we should engineer in our workplaces to keep transforming our workplaces and keenly adapting to the world. We have little option other than to keep connecting our workforce intelligently with the rest of the world. The work of transformation we embarked on 45 years ago has perforce to continue in the future. For this, we need to ignore, as we have done in the past, all the negative factors which have the potential to keep us from progressing further. All we need to remember is that many individuals have come up along the way to give the needed sense of direction to the country. Many have selflessly pursued the objective to set the country onto a higher plane. We have no reason to think that there will not come along in the forward march of this nation equal numbers of enlightened, motivated and selfless individuals who will take our initial adventure into yet unseen domains and on much higher planes of achievement than what we see today.
* Published in print edition on 8 March 2013