In the face of difficulties, governments may feel inclined to take the path of least resistance and yield to pressures and grant privileges to specific groups.
It is being reported that the government would be taking a decision to spend an amount of Rs 117 million to set up two or three permanent places of business for the “marchands ambulants” (street hawkers) of Port Louis. It is well known how much of an encumbrance these so-called street hawkers have become to footpath and road users in the City, ever-increasing in numbers with time.
But not only in Port Louis: it would appear that many of them move about from one urban conurbation to another depending on opportunities for business, picking up temporarily unoccupied public spots from which to engage in their private trade, no matter what inconvenience is caused to other users. This category of business thus already has the advantage of mobility whereas normal traders with a fixed place of work don’t have such an option.
The question that arises is whether it is for the government to assume the burden of providing business infrastructure to individuals – themselves or, as has been advanced before, their frontmen or women — who are engaged in gainful private trade, just to avoid the streets of Port Louis (and other towns) being encumbered by a practice that the Supreme Court has already ruled against. Has government weighed the risk that, seeing this discriminatory favourable treatment being meted out to this group of persons, others of the present and future generations in other places would be encouraged to spill over onto the streets and pavements of other parts of the country so as to have the same privileges extended to them at public cost? For all we know, the Equal Opportunities Commission may well have to step in to ensure that the government refrain from resorting to such discriminatory practices.
The way the problem of “marchands ambulants” is being tackled raises other questions. Can one so lightly reverse a decision taken without pondering on consequences regarding problems which bristle up from time to time? Some decisions compound the problem with time. Others don’t. The more decisions of the latter type we take the more will we truly consolidate our democratic space in both spirit and letter. And the converse is also true, namely that we weaken our democracy by glib handling of issues that need much deeper consideration.
Take the example of the Best Loser System. Its point of departure is a sound one: that our electoral system should ensure adequate representation in the National Assembly of the entire nation in its differentiated parts. People have to feel in their entirety as belonging to the nation’s decision-making process in order to contribute their full share to challenges faced by the country in terms of skills, brain power and drive, especially so in the modern globalised economy. They cannot do so if they feel left out. The BLS was the attempt at inclusiveness, a fundamental element of balance and poise in a multiracial country’s electoral system. It was an instrument to give everyone a fair chance to be represented, not to entrench ethnicity. Ethnicity is nurtured in other forms, not in the BLS.
Another issue is that of language policy, which can be illustrated by the example of Malaysia. Some years after 1965, it decided to drop the English language and teach all subjects in the Malay language. The government later realized that it was a serious disadvantage to lose English. In 2003 therefore it reintroduced English for the teaching of science and maths. This resulted in stiff opposition from the Malays who had been given other privileges too as part of the government’s indigenisation policy of the country. In 2009, the Malaysian government was forced to switch back to the Malay language as the language medium for science and maths. The lesson? Once privileges become entrenched, it is at great political cost that governments can revert back to realistic policies that confer benefits to the country as a whole. In this example, the decision to drop English proved irreversible.
We may at times take decisions flippantly, to please lobbies or to impress. Events the world over are proving that short-term solutions without solid rational grounds end up having devastating consequences. One privilege granted here leads to other approving privileges there in an attempt to keep conditions balanced, but instead this leads to a perpetual vicious cycle of ingratiating sectional interest groups with populist measures which only increases the underlying current of social tension. A benefit that was conferred as a temporary catching-up device becomes even more entrenched with time.
Sometimes, countries go so far in this direction that they keep complicating issues, instead of really taking the bull by its horns and sorting them out on a level playing field for once and all. This is where the Welfare State, at one time an essential balm against the unfairness inflicted on workers by the working of blind market forces, risks seeing the baby being thrown out with the bathwater when economic radicals put up a fight against it. There is rational limit up to which all successful countries go, and, after that, no more. Can we discipline ourselves to produce outcomes that do not threaten the polity in terms of its democratic norms, in particular the most fundamental one of equality of rights and non-discrimination?
* Published in print edition on 1 August 2014