Harnessing our Oceanic Resources

Mauritius has been living on the ocean for a long number of years. At first, the ocean proved to be the main channel for bringing life and economic activity to the island. First, through capture by colonizers, then slavery followed by the import of indentured labour and at the heart of it all an ever-increasing amount of exchange of goods and services with the world. Viewed from this angle, the ocean surrounding Mauritius has been vital to our economic and social development.

The government’s initiative to explicitly take on the idea of an oceanic economy falls in line with not only the connectivity the ocean provides us with the rest of the world and hence the opportunity to do business. It is also about using more intensively and intelligently, through appropriate research and better use of extant and future technologies, the surrounding exclusive maritime economic zone of the country more productively to advance the scope of the Mauritian economy. So, what’s new? It is the focus on further development of an area of activity that has long been with us, the potential contribution of which has been overlooked perhaps due to inadequate human and other capital.

When economists speak of land, labour and capital as the three factors of production which combine with entrepreneurship to produce economic output, they do not consider land as the dry land mass only. They also have water and water resources as well as underground and over-ground resources as forming part of the factor of production called land. A careful management of land resources broadly defined can contribute immensely to both our own welfare and to the better upkeep of the global environment in which we live.

We have seen recently how a calamity broke out during oil exploration off the American coast when BP was drilling oil from undersea. There have been calamitous oil spills in other parts of the world, which thankfully have been controlled. But geologists and geo-physicists consider that it is well within our capacity not to unleash such catastrophes if we are careful and mindful of developing resources safely from the oceans with the help of appropriate technology. If we tread carefully, we can swim out to a higher level of prosperity keeping under control such disasters.

If we look at the development of a world-class shipyard in South Korea as an example, the reason for this was not only the near presence of the ocean. It was rather access to the raw materials for supporting this activity, notably the steel and wiring of the ships which came out from the shipyards. It was also dependent on cultivating a market demand for the output. That happened largely because there was ambition on the part of the South Koreans and the capacity to bring up and employ the skills and technology needed to get the best and most technologically advanced vessels for the international maritime sector. High-level engineering was available from an existing tradition of equipment building in various other sophisticated areas. If Mauritius has to nurture ambition to put the ocean economy at the heart of its future economic development, it needs to harness this type of vision and the capacity to implement. It goes beyond abstract thinking; it requires a diversity of world-class skills to be put in place for whichever marine-based activity it wants to prioritize.

Having access to capital is a must if we do not want to stagnate at the SME level. Merely having a vast expanse of ocean under our control will not suffice. Doing a few symbolic incursions into non-traditional sea-based activity will also not take us too far. We will need to work together with experienced partners who see the opening up of the economy in this direction as a worthwhile opportunity to set foot over here and work together with us to advance the stage continuously. We will need to keep our cost structure and dependability as a business-driven economy as crucial factors towards development of a core oceanic industry. Our capacity to demonstrate comparative advantage for ocean-based activities to set up in Mauritius is more important than the mere timing of such an area of activity.

Moreover, for a balanced development to take place and for us not to be held at ransom by anyone single international force, we will need to attract to our shores more than a single geo-strategic power to operate from our shores, taking serious care not to make it a short-lived experience due to over-exploitation and rapid depletion of marine resources. All this depends not only on smart international diplomacy. It depends on the “stock-in-trade” we can build up to attract to ourselves the best and the most promising adventurers in this area. There is no doubt that if Mauritius succeeded to position itself as a cost-effective and state-of-the-art hub for trans-shipment of materials from, say Africa and Australia, there could be a considerable build-up for us as a venue for related international business.

We don’t have to leave it exclusively in the hands of international business partners; we need to join with them to the extent possible so that we are not at a loss if, according to the laws of supply and demand, one chunk of the activity decided to move out at some future stage. But they will not join with us unless we have something worthwhile to offer to them in their chain of production. Our universities could long have taken the cue to produce world-class technicians who could team up with any other nation’s sea-going industries which choose to work together with us under the concept being evolved in the context of the ocean economy. It is not too late. If there are chairs already for ocean-going faculties at the university, they need to be beefed up by drawing to ourselves the finest brains from the relevant teaching faculties of the world.

It has long been seen that the ocean holds a huge potential for our economic growth beyond the customary pattern of import and export established since colonial days. There are a number of activities that can be generated with the ocean as an important foundation in which our own dry land as well as our proximate African hinterland can contribute to extend scope and sustainability. To have a coherent and implementable plan of action, you need one or more dedicated drivers who know what they want, what is feasible and how the work plan should proceed in order to make concrete progress.

As in the case any other novel sector of extensive activity, procrastination or hoping for the best will not be a recipe for successful implementation of an oceanic project for the country. Things should not fall apart along the journey, especially if a few opportunists get together to cream off the best inequitably and exclusively for themselves, not leaving even the crumbs for the rest. That will be most demotivating. Inclusive approaches will be best.

A good amount of skilful coordination by a high class manager, not necessarily an expert in marine technology, but a real manager who sees to it that actions are taken to rise from an elementary stage to a higher stage in quick succession, will be able to add up an altogether brilliant profile to the economy, working from the ocean angle. It will need to be a person who clearly understands how economic linkages among sectors work their way out, a do-er, not a thinker. Mauritius is being shown this way since a long number of years; unfortunately, we have not heeded the signals coming to us.

Sam Pitroda overhauled India not long ago from being a country in which STD calls were paramount to an intensely connected ITC provider to millions in the country and thence moving out to the most advanced countries of the world, by democratising the technology access. Like him, we will need a transformative local archetype who can be smart enough to lift us out of petty considerations, make us ride above these and turn to advantage the ocean and the rest of the economy to a much higher stage of integrative development.

* Published in print edition on 27 July  2013

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