Small is Beautiful


By M.K.

We live in a world of crumbling empires. From a small army and the city, Rome grew into a sprawling empire. It swept at its peak over nearly all of today’s modern Europe, stretching out across the Mediterranean to North Africa. Egypt and Carthage (Tunisia) formed part at one time of this empire. There has been the Macedonian empire headed by Alexander the Great. The Ottomans (Turks) were the next builders of empire.

It was said of the expanse of the British empire which came thereafter that the sun never set on it. The German empire failed to materialize in the 20th Century. All the empires melted away at one time or other for some reason or other. The fact is: they could not hold themselves together anymore at some point in time. Yet all had their beginnings in small endeavours which were intended to improve the way of life of their adherents in a shared enterprise.

If you look back at the history of Mauritius, you will come across a number of micro efforts made by its citizens from time to time in a bid to organize themselves into small effective institutional units. One example is the cooperative movement. Individual sugarcane planters realized that they would be unable to sustain their activity on a standalone basis, especially when it came to financing their plantations during the long interval when income from sugar sold to the outside market had to be awaited for over a long period. It was cooperative societies which came into being after a long struggle with the British authorities who governed the country to give them the sustaining factor. The Department (ministry) of Cooperatives was established in 1913; by 1948, the cooperative societies ended up establishing their own cooperative bank, a nucleus around which its dynamics were constructed.

In this setup, every small planter, no matter what the size of his land under cultivation, joined the regional cooperative and was assured of receiving sufficient inter-crop finance to look after his plantation and his family until the sugar receipts for the crop were actually received. The cooperative society was a coalition of small producer units. It was the heart of a system that made the small planter community economically viable.

But it achieved something even greater than what its founding members could have contemplated. The bigger picture was that there emerged in the country a class of small planters who ended up contributing up to 40% of the total sugar produced by the country at some stage. This would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. Many of the cooperative members started aspiring to their social elevation and the road towards this uplift was education and emulation. It is this sense of ambition that made the community of small planters (belonging to the different ethnic groups of the population) contribute significantly to the uplift of the nation itself. Their offspring came to occupy different positions of responsibility in the hierarchy of national institutions. By showing that they were no less capable in the conduct of such transformational responsibilities in the affairs of state than their predecessors, they instilled a rare sense of confidence in the ensuing generation.

One needs to bear in mind that this saga had its origins in very small units of production. It is the social engineering done by way of grouping themselves in societies that launched them into a successful adventure none would have expected to materialize so soon, viewed against the wretched background in the different continents from which only one generation past had been drawn. Here is a clear example to show by how much the sum of a collective individual effort can by far transcend what the individual components acting in their isolation could have achieved. It is sad to realize that some form of aggressive individualism has been taking over rather than building upon this collective success factor.

What are the results of this turnaround to individualism? The momentum that it took so many years to gather is petering out: planters, large and small, have been abandoning their land to huge slabs of concrete being splashed all over the island as they see the planting activity reduced to relative economic unviability. Prohibitive costs of production have made the agricultural sector as a whole abandon nearly two thousand hectares of cultivation each year over the last decade. Some have found it more profitable to turn their lands over to speculative real estate. All this is the result of distortions in the economic model whereby successive devaluations of the rupee have put cost of production out of reach of the small producer, given his limited economic scope. On the other hand, despite trade union action having raised wages in successive rounds to levels the small producer left to himself can hardly face, the bigger producers have eked out devaluations enough from time to time to keep themselves in business thanks to better economies of scale and diversification of their portfolio into compensating alternative investments.

Had the regrouping of small producers (and not only in plantation) in collective units continued, the situation of this category of producers would have been better. Many would have produced electricity from home for sale to the public grid today so the CEB could have tapped this source and not exclusively the IPPs; others would have owned efficiently managed fish farms and industrial fishing boats scouring our exclusive economic marine zone before foreigners’ trawlers end up depleting our marine resources; producers grouped in modern cooperatives would have been selling vegetables and fruits on a much larger scale than what we are doing at present to external markets with the appropriate backing of R&D from government departments; professionals emanating from the ranks of such as these would have become reputed suppliers of world class service to outside markets. Hopes in this direction were dashed once the greatest ambition of this group shifted from producing for themselves and the markets (as their ancestors had done) to seeking to fill vacancies in the government service as the highest career option.

This entrepreneurial spirit can still be cultivated. Many of the big providers of goods and services today had modest beginnings. But they persevered against all sorts of odds, market and economic barriers as well as unfairness and injustices of all sorts. They did not build up empires as of old (candidates for eventual crumbling) but like Toyota, Toshiba and Canon of Japan, Samsung and Hyundai of South Korea, the Tatas, Birlas and Murthys of India, and numerous others from different climes and countries, they were able to leap out of their narrow bounds so that it is the world that came seeking out for their state-of-the-art products and services. Yet, it was unimaginable that so-called “upstarts” from the erstwhile third-world countries could one day compel historical companies from past empires to want to join hands with them for survival and look without the least trace of an inferiority complex into the eyes of entrepreneurs of the previous masters of the world.

The world must change with time. It is an unbending rule. But those who succeed in markets, economies and society are those who are capable of bending to the changing tunes of times without breaking. Many of our chaps who are engaged in manufacturing began as small entities and are still surviving. It is because they have developed this extraordinary gift of constant adaptation. There came a point of inflexion when our cooperative sector had to breathe in a new breath of life in itself by adapting; it missed the opportunity. All hopes are not lost forever however. You need a couple of outstanding leaders, not bluffers, to give this universally acknowledged small unit sector, reputed for its entrenched instinct of survival, another chance, another start upon what was done in the earlier phase. As they say in the advertisement, amateurs who will mess it all once again are not invited to the resuscitating ceremony. At this lower level of nimble-footed undertakings, we are not in the game of building empires for crumbling eventually. We want to build something more sustainable, small, part of a bigger whole, but beautiful.

* Published in print edition on 6 July 2012

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