The Social Contract


By M.K.

At one time, 80 to 90% of the population of Mauritius was living in conditions of abject poverty. It is protest against this state of affairs that launched the labour movement of 1936. Much progress has been recorded against the dire situation of people in those days. Even then, according to a recent World Bank report, there are today some 110,000 poor people who are dependent on social aid in order to survive. Given the weak conditions from which they have to fight it up, it will take some time before they are pulled out to more decent and acceptable levels.

When there are matters like this to attend to and elections are far off, it is issues of this type that should logically assume national priority. It is sheer aberration, and rather indecent too, to point all the guns towards the next political alliance and keep all energies focussed on power-seeking. The prioritization of political alliances to get hold of power over bigger issues like poverty and crime is a classic example of the extent to which our politicians appear to have lost the main plot.

Provision of free schooling and medical care by the public sector has helped to mitigate the lot of all those who have been left behind. Had social welfare measures been guided by the pecuniary considerations underlying IMF/World Bank criteria, consisting largely of reshuffling from those at the relatively lower levels to those completely at the bottom, the lot of the poor would have been worse.

The real problem in our society is related to the visceral resistance of the well-off and those who have made it in life by their personal efforts, to let go some of their gains even if that were to help out raise those who have been left behind. They will not give up anything if they can. They can bring the law to their rescue to fight it up if the authorities wanted them to contribute more fairly a part of their incomes to provide relief to those who are so hard put that they cannot even think of better tomorrows.

Yet, it would have been to everybody’s advantage if there was a process for gradually lifting those who, for some reason or other, find themselves stuck up at the bottom. Why? The absence of prospects makes people despair about their future. Some find an escape from this condition in the consumption of drugs. Others find it right to plunder and steal. Many are forced to live in overcrowded “residences”, to use a lofty term for the shacks that they inhabit. It is as if there is already in their minds an assumption that there is no future for them. They start believing that they cannot rise above their lot. The few outsiders who make an effort to give them a sense of orientation nevertheless do not have adequate resources to lug them on to a condition from which they can ascend socially.

Is it surprising then that this underclass, in its effort to become “someone”, has recourse to violence? The violence is directed first against family and friends in the immediate vicinity. Crime becomes, in a sort, a way of life. To get educated is the least of its preoccupations; it is easier to steal, kill and run amok. As in everything else, this “occupation” has a learning process. The scale of crime gradually assumes bigger proportions. So, those who could have escaped from the clutches of the first round of poverty and associated crime get inextricably involved in it but for the wrong reasons. As this circle grows, it provokes destabilizing effects on society as a whole.

Something could have turned this situation over its head. This was effective leadership coming from the fold. Social leadership emanates from “role models”. Even those who have made it higher in Mauritian society complain about the absence of serious “role models” whom to respect and emulate for charting out a life of higher aspirations.

Too many who had this potential to become good “role models” for the underclass chose rather to feather their own nest. They were diverted into compromising for immediate private economic benefits. This is the opportunistic message they also gave to their unfortunate followers. Even institutions that were supposed to “take charge” towards providing good guidance absconded from their real duties being too engrossed in the pursuit of money, power and position. They shifted the blame, when it suited their convenience, on the political leadership.

This is the reason why you will see hordes of Mauritians today complaining against almost everything. In their inner consciousness, someone other than themselves is to blame. These critics specialize in bringing up a litany of faults they see around them. Their job appears to stop once they find the fault; they have little or nothing by way of solution to offer. As these sorts of criticisms almost never reach a solution, the fantasy in the minds of the interlocutors is that those in authority are to blame for whatever shortcomings there are in the system. Unfortunately, this kind of attitude is receiving encouraging mileage in public forums.

To some extent, there is an element of truth in the allegations inasmuch as some who are paid to do their duties by the State are careless and negligent. They don’t have a mind which acts in anticipation. But it is a tall order to expect any government to identify these shortcomings at the micro level. This is the job rather of the managers and boards that have been put in place to look after distinct compartments of public life: otherwise what was the point of appointing them into those positions? From here, it is not a big step for some so-called learned observers, to generalize all the ailments from which society suffers to deliberate acts and omissions on the part of governments. This is obviously a great fallacy.

Surely, there are other social forces that are supposed to work towards the betterment of society? Are religious organisations not paid subsidies by the government to do their own lot to uphold social well-being? How can they disengage themselves from the bad social unfolding when it comes into view? Where are the NGOs? What exactly are the big Corporate CSRs supposed to be funding? Is social justice better delivered by neglecting certain groups while targeting selected beneficiaries from the CSRs?

Is it solely the responsibility of the State to help the poor defend themselves against going into poverty? In whose hands is the greater part of the country’s GDP generated: the State or the private sector? Surely, there is a duty on the part of those who are excessively endowed with wealth and incomes to reduce the gigantic gap that has come about between the assets and incomes of the super-rich and the dirt-poor?

It is not by offloading onto the State all the responsibility for social upkeep that we will be able to tackle a social problem at the roots that has been taking the form of different types of domestic and social violence. Credible forums ought to have been created since long to pool all our energies in the same direction. That would have avoided problems springing from poor parentage, lousy environments, lax supervision of social tendencies and scourges like drugs, prostitution, gambling and so forth from assuming nearly ungovernable proportions.

There is an unwritten social contract. It binds all stakeholders into a common purpose. It seeks to achieve a balance of opportunities for all to avoid introducing destabilizing elements in the social construct. It requires a better sharing of resources and opportunities among members of society than what we have. It requires crime to be suppressed not by punishment but by giving all a fair opportunity to find reasonable expression in the total social fabric. This has not been forthcoming because everyone wants to see the social phenomenon from his own parochial interest, not as one that requires comprehensive solution.

In the process, society has been gradually losing its bearings and increasing our vulnerability from inside. It is dangerous to nurture a sense of oppression from inside as that might explode into our own face. It is time some opinion-movers understood that you cannot ascribe to single variables (the education system, police supervision, acts of corruption, etc.), one at a time, the culture of crime which is becoming increasingly pervasive in our society.

* Published in print edition on 13 April 2012

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