crying aloud for our attention
The public debate the past weeks has been dominated by suggestions to introduce what has been referred to as a “second republic”. Apparently, from the government side, this entails bringing about changes in the Constitution that will help, amongst others, accelerate the decision-making process in the public sector. To the opposition, it particularly means introducing an element of proportional representation in the voting system. This has led to speculation about a potential rapprochement between government and opposition to sort out issues of mutual interest. Without grasping fully the contours of the debate, perhaps deliberately left vague to encourage speculation, the media as well as politicians have spent the week discussing about it. One wonders why this issue has suddenly surfaced up and whether it really needs to be prioritised on the way forward for the country.
It appears on the other hand that there is concrete work to do. The budget is coming up in a matter of weeks. The country needs to come out with two things at least in the context of economic policy-making: it needs to reasonably bridge the gap in terms of government revenues that the abandonment of certain oppressive tax policies such as the NRPT and tax on interest on savings deposits, as promised during the previous electoral campaign, will entail; secondly, it needs to enunciate a series of plausible and mutually supporting measures that will encourage the private sector to launch itself into a sustainable range of economic activities favouring growth of employment and earnings in an avowedly difficult external economic environment. In this context, the job of government officials is not limited to stating how difficult it will prove to be to bridge the resource gap if certain past fiscal policies have to be given up; their job is to identify and propose acceptable alternative plans to get the government finances on a sound footing even if certain tax policies have to be given up.
The private sector has assumed all the way that it would be putting all the cards in its hands if it had a government comprising specific politicians whom it could remote-control to get to the policies that would favour it the most. Forty-two years after independence, is it still necessary to harp on the same strings? Is it not in the mutual interest of both politicians in power, of whichever hues and colours they be, and the private sector as it stands, to join efforts to get us to face challenges posed by so many prevailing economic uncertainties at this juncture? Isn’t it the time for both parties to make reasonable concessions to each other to mend a number of difficult situations facing the country? Important as the talks of Constitutional changes may be, it is quite clear that the overriding priority is to face up rather various concrete economic and social problems that have been clamouring for attention.
It is true that some of the issues requiring urgent attention have started being addressed but the effort does not match the scale of our deficit in various compartments calling for attention. This is a better place in which to expend energy and effort. Nevertheless, the fact is that there are several matters needing to be dealt with more comprehensively than it has been the case so far.
One of them is the infrastructure. It involves spending but the best spending is one that ties the various loose ends together in order to avoid waste. For years, infrastructure has been demanding our attention. For example, years back, a third lane was added on the motorway from after Pailles up to the Reduit round-about to ease traffic going to the South. Why was a third lane not created simultaneously on the way North to Port Louis, even on that small part of the highway? It was evident to road-users that this was as important as the one going in the direction of Curepipe. It was not done at that time. Now, it will cost us hundreds of millions more which taxpayers will be made to fork out. The authorities are executing this project now after billions of rupees have been wasted in ever increasing traffic jams during so many years. One should not limit oneself to roads on this chapter. What about adequate water supply? Wasn’t it evident that the Midlands Reservoir would not suffice and that water needed to be tapped more fully in the face of growing demands from an expanding range of activities? Was it not also useful to save on water being wasted by replacing old and leaking CWA pipes? This remains an outstanding issue. Likewise, steps could have been taken to install more renewable energy sources since years but this has yet to be done.
Other structural changes to move our economic activities towards more resilient high-tech production for global markets have equally well not been supported. We are therefore more or less forced to sell goods of this class by importing them instead of producing them at home both for local consumption and exports. More and practical skills of workers together with experience were needed to go firmly in this direction. Failure to do so effectively has forced us down a pedestrian route to work for the more vulnerable low end of export markets, putting at risk our employment levels as well as the exchange rate of the rupee. At one time, small planters were a success story. They were cited as an example of economic and social emancipation for large masses of our population. Even a highly symbolical sector of activity such as this one, let alone our diversification into high-tech activities, has been facing increasing difficulties. Had this sector received due attention, would it be finding itself in the dire straits in which it is today, with a bleak future outlook? Who has been giving it a sense of direction in its present plight? The deficit in decision-making has cost us a lot in all these areas. In all of these, there is much work to do to restore things to viable conditions.
As if it was not enough to accumulate so many deficits, we notice that society on its part has vehemently been asking for help. How else does one interpret the fact that certain sordid crimes which were dismissed erstwhile as being the scourge of other societies, are becoming a common occurrence over here? A new sort of violence and loss of sense of values has erupted. It needed to be arrested before going too far and putting at risk both social and economic progress. Instead of addressing problems such as these at source, notably by making the immediate entourage alive to the problem and help to stop it before anti-social behaviour became routine, the tendency was to squarely pass the buck to the “authorities” for not doing enough.
Persistence in this kind of attitude will not take us too far. Pockets of deep poverty will also not help to keep off this kind of problem from society. While the government’s action should be directed to keep as low as possible cases of social distress, it alone will not be able to do the job. It will need to work together with social partners to inculcate noble qualities forbidding the pursuit of greed and the lookout for easy money in all circumstances. It is not too late for all the relevant parties to join efforts to avoid generalisation of such problems. More systematic work needs to be undertaken so as not to end up hurting the very fabric of our society.
A society which loses focus on its principal preoccupations cannot go too far to achieve concrete targets. It is time this focus was brought back to the centre. We must find the solutions to our problems by ourselves and not hand them over to outsiders to solve them for us. All it requires is a strong sense of discipline and sufficient lucidity to know exactly what we are looking for. The public as well as politicians would under this approach be making concrete propositions on which policies to pursue in view of our immediate priorities and how to balance them for the benefit of all. As we have seen, there are many real issues out there crying aloud for our attention. Addressing them will produce real positive outcomes for the country. It is not opportune to divert energies to esoteric subjects that will not contribute to solving the immediate problems facing the economy.
* Published in print edition on 15 October 2010