In a country in which land figures out as one of its most scarce of resources, one would expect the administration to monitor carefully and meticulously the use to which it is being put. But we have a recurring problem of squatters. On the other hand, real estate and the property trade has become a bonanza for those who are endowed with land. When the opportunity knocked at our door to do something serious about the issue of land, we failed to make optimum use of it as it is well illustrated by the poor handling of the Illovo lands. One is led to believe that we are not doing well into this and other critical areas of public administration because we do not have public officers with the depth of vision to address the issues and inspire politicians to take better decisions; they appear rather to be more apt to take the wrong decisions at first only to reverse them when the political backlash comes up.
The all-inclusive land area of Mauritius is about 1860 square kilometres. Mauritius currently has a permanent population of 1.3 million; we also have annual visitors of about 1 million from the rest of the world, mainly tourists and businessmen. The government’s stated objective is to increase the number of incoming tourists to 2 million. The number of hotels and their room capacity has accordingly been on the increase.
Most of our agricultural land is under sugar cane plantation but total sugar production which used to be in the region of 700,000 tonnes at the peak in past years has remained around 500,000 tonnes per annum in the more recent years. This means that land under sugarcane has been coming down and this is seen more clearly in the fact that the sugar extraction rate has remained stable for a long number of years now. Had the extraction rate increased, we would have been making more efficient use of land devoted to sugarcane plantation. Land has increasingly been ceded over to the construction and sale of luxury villas to foreigners under the IRS and other similar schemes so that part of the land which was or could have been devoted to agricultural production has been occupied by those villas. We don’t believe those villas are on marginal lands; our ancestors have turned even more marginal lands, at a time when there was no mechanisation, into fertile soil.
Given also that we are increasing from year to year our imports of basic food supplies – and this is not solely because of specific demands by the tourism sector – this means that it is not non-cane food production that is claiming away part of our cultivable land. If we were to turn to our own land resources to substitute for some of these food imports in a bid to achieve greater food security, we would be putting additional pressure on the available land resource of the country. That pressure could come down only if cultural techniques were sharply improved so as to produce more on less land area. Increasing occupation of cane land by other activities which are sprouting up in parallel shows that limits have been reached. Thus, if we were to diversify agriculture into other agricultural activities which are economically more attractive than sugar production, the sugarcane land will need to be released to make space for those diversified activities. In other words, we will have to forego sugar production to make way for other lines of agricultural production. We are hitting against ceilings already insofar as agriculture is concerned.
There are at least two more claimants of land in terms of our future needs.
One is the need for land to expand the physical infrastructure which plays a critical role in the facilitation of efficient economic production, i.e. increasing GDP. We saw recently how the renovation of the Trou aux Biches hotel caused the deviation of the existing coastal road into the already built-up area in the vicinity of the hotel. We witnessed how the Jin Fei project in the north requisitioned land for the project itself as well as for the accompanying infrastructure. That land was dedicated to small-scale agriculture which has been displaced by the project. Hotel and similar projects of the sort are land-hungry. The inevitable development of wider roads now and in the future will, in the face of an unplanned relentless expansion of vehicles on the roads, claim more land.
It must be borne in mind that land is becoming available to house new projects because the land was available. Alternatively, it was possible to free the lands from other uses to which they were put before to accommodate those projects. Thus the new roads that are contemplated to link up Port Louis to new urban areas like the Highlands project will be built using existing cane lands. If we were to continue using up our land resources until no such reserves existed at all in the future, we will then understand the true meaning of the word ‘congestion’. This is the direction from which future pressure is coming on the scarce land resource.
Other countries facing constraints like the ones imposed by our insular condition, took stock of the problem well in time. They acted with great intelligence and vision to rationalise land use for the different purposes to which it can be put. Space was allocated to competing demands, taking into account future demands to which those lands would be put. Optimisation programs were applied either by local authorities giving the permits or by an all-embracing government plan covering the entire territory.
They did not waste resources building up on the land only to reverse decisions a few months down the road at high cost, as we are used to doing over here to the detriment of taxpayers. In those places, you will rarely see the previously dug-up places being dug up again in a short space of time as we see it being done in Mauritius. The national physical plan was thought out in advance and policies carved out accordingly so as not to encourage wild development as takes place over here. Because decisions could not be taken outside of strict pre-established priorities on the use of land in those places, their public officers could not grant ad hoc authorisations, basing themselves solely on broad legal provisions setting out the broad purpose to which the land can be put, as it happens over here. It is not surprising that a place like Singapore which has less than half the land territory of Mauritius, can lodge a population of nearly 5 million comfortably and host thrice as many tourists annually without putting under stress its physical infrastructure. It is the quality of the mind that makes the difference.
The other major future claimant of land is the new generation. Without increasing our GDP per capita to a higher level, we have allowed land prices to soar as if we had the same purchasing power as in other places whose GDP per capita is much higher. This has put land virtually out of reach of the younger members of our population aspiring to have a house of their own. No doubt, the allocation of land to specific development projects like Jin Fei and IRS has the effect of lifting several-fold land prices in the area in the immediate proximity of such projects. We are noticing a going-up of land prices almost everywhere. As erstwhile cane lands have been getting increasingly converted to residential or commercial use, or both, land price has been irretrievably shooting up. Yet, it was foreseeable that the price of the cane land would multiply by a factor of 50 to 100 times what it was selling at barely 10-15 years ago unless policies were adopted and implemented to stop the steep increase in the price of the land.
This kind of acceleration of the price of residential land should have been accompanied by public policies to safeguard future access to land by those for whom the land was getting out of reach as property development was allowed to proceed apace. One measure, which fell on deaf ears despite our repeated recommendations, was for government to recover a reasonable part, not a token amount, of the windfall gains arising from conversion of land from agricultural to non-agricultural use in the context of the IRS projects. The amount so recovered could have constituted a large enough fund for launching various public sector-sponsored and rationally ordained housing programs for different groups and professional levels of the population in need of affordable homes in the future. Another measure would have been for the government, not land speculators in the good books of the government, to constitute a land bank for conducting social housing programs consistently with a plausible scheme for food security; even willing members of the private sector could have been induced to join in under public sector supervision. We have had none of that.
That is why the problem of genuine squatters is surfacing up from time to time. It will keep emerging again and again unless someone makes a holistic study of the whole matter and shifts policy from purely market-driven to social objective-driven as well. Successive governments have failed to advise themselves by the examples of other countries which have been more careful in handling their land management policies. It may not be too late to take the necessary initiative which goes beyond a sheer cadastral plan and collection of taxes objective. It is a matter in which a government can make a difference against all its predecessors. If this is not done, we just have to imagine how much more difficult it will be for a future government to deal with a compounding of the current land problem.
* Published in print edition on 6 August 2010