The Jugnauth couple, PM Pravind and wife Kobita, were feted in style and regalia at the inauguration of the WHO Global Centre for Traditional Medicine in Gujarat on April 19, and there is no doubt that this planned trip will contribute towards consolidating the India-Mauritius axis with Ambassador Singla in attendance. Nothing beats the personal interactions that take place on the sidelines at high levels, even when hosts are equally busy at such an august and promising breakthrough event for the world medical fraternity.
The special arrangements made by the Indian authorities for PM Jugnauth and WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as chief guests, testify to the enduring strengths underlying the strong multi-faceted bonds between our two Indian Ocean countries, including national security, and the special place the PM seems to have woven personally with the highest levels of the BJP in India.
Unfortunately for the PMO, although official communication would have tried to focus on this trip, the meetings and outcomes, the Mauritian scene was erupting as the population was literally sand-bagged by a flurry of steep price rises that will add more burdensome worries to the rapidly eroding purchasing power of even the middle classes, let alone the elderlies or the struggling SMEs.
Price rises of gas cylinder bottles (12 kg ones go from Rs 180 to Rs 240), another 10% gasoline and diesel price rise at the pump stations, with possibly imminent electricity rate rises and cascading effects feared on flour or bread, public transport and supermarket commodities, have stolen the headlines away from the images of luxurious motorcades and garlands in Gujarat to our down-to-earth realities. Many families coping with making ends meet, were just angrily edging out of the painful dramas of heavy downpours and flooding which left few areas unscathed, despite billions voted in the Ministry of Finance’s last budget for “drains and more drains” and which we assume would have been converted into contractor contracts at district and municipal levels, that were supervised and did actually deliver useful work.
After the publication of last year’s Audit Report of more wasteful practices in the public service, the continued procurement scandals at Health during the weaning out stages of the Covid pandemic, the posse of Ministers rushing to the Dubay jalsa with dozens of public servants in tow, the continued erosion of purchasing power and the depreciation of our national currency, there were no particular reasons for much of the population to enthuse at images of luxurious events from overseas.
Some have openly wondered at the timing of the latest round of price rises when the national budget is under final stages of preparation anyway. Was there any urgency to such off-budget announcements and were the real state of our national reserves in the central bank or parastatal agencies far more critical than the authorities were conceding, even a week ago? Many importers, retailers and traders have been complaining about serious shortages of forex affecting their activities, the reality of which was acknowledged when the Bank of Mauritius unexpectedly released some $200m into the banking circuit last week, without it seems bothering to inform the Finance Minister.
Several leading economic personalities in these columns and elsewhere have highlighted the risks of the country running downhill along the Malaysian, Pakistani or Sri Lankan path of gross economic mismanagement, public debt spirals and rampant corruption of wealthy elites as large sections of their countrymen face dire situations. The Finance Minister has not been conspicuous in the defense of his macro-economic policies and outcomes under duress from worldwide conditions and has artfully left the individual agencies (State Trading Corporation, Central Electricity Board, National Transport Authority, etc) and their parent ministries shoulder the publicly expressed wrath of taxpayers and consumers angered by the latest round of price increases. One can understand such shyness, but for a Finance Minister to steal the thunder away from the PM’s high-profile trip would have been foolhardy or bravely unconscious. The Minister is neither.
Some in the Opposition would like to believe that both the series of price rises and the overseas trip would have been premeditated to get all the bad news and the population wrath out of the way when the PM would be shielded from such mundane matters as bread prices while furrowing new frontiers of India-Mauritius friendship. In a win-win scenario, even another line of credit from PM Narendra Modi, could be purposefully marketed and hailed as a huge relief, enabling the Finance Minister in his budget speech to again praise “his” PM Pravind Jugnauth, and proceed to lighten somewhat the burden of the elderly, the downtrodden and the middle classes by a politically very astute government. The MSM reckons that the localized and temporary angers and frustrations can be overcome at the appropriate time, for example, through some relief in the next budget pending a more fulsome delivery of pledges and stuff prior to the 2024 general elections.
As for the Opposition forces, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary, with the prospects of municipal elections nowhere in sight, they will need more resilience if they wish to keep working towards a unified horizon in order to mobilize the 60% or so who did not vote for the MSM alliance at the 2019 elections and offer a credible alternative. Whether that is the path they find consensus and agree upon, there is a widespread feeling that the Labour Party and the Platforme de l’Espoir, either separately or in common, have to start ground meetings soon despite all the obstacles that obtain with the pandemic. By dismissing municipals to 2023 or even later, even on the flimsiest of pretexts, government has removed one reason for some early agreement between them.
For the near future then, political parties, observers and the population at large will brace for further price escalations while many will have their antennae glued to the grapevine for some budgetary solace. Will there be any innovative solutions to our current economic model and framework or to the pursuance of pensions and the welfare state? What new horizons and perspectives will the authorities offer to the thousands of college graduates who would wish to pursue high-level tertiary studies locally in public academic institutions that are recognized on international rankings? As for those enrolled overseas, are there enough reasons to entice them back to an environment, both public and private, where who matters more than what? Are we confident that our youths will have been solidly grounded in virtues that are not merely pecuniary?
Many questions may or may not find answers in the mechanics of the coming budget, and we can recognise that the pandemic has imposed heavy tolls on our education, health and social security sectors and on a population that has survived pandemic fatigue. When restrictions are being phased out entirely for incoming visitors, should we not consider that Mauritians also deserve a progressive and rapid end to their impositions? Many might also prefer that projects, which are neither priority nor carving out new niches, nor even employing Mauritians, could be trimmed down to fit our circumstances and that there is consequential room to reduce unnecessary taxes, duties and levies, including VAT that have cascading effects on the cost of living. With public debt at its highest, to keep borrowing from the Central Bank’s reserves or foreign assistance from India or elsewhere, to feed the appetite for large projects may leave future generations to bear the costs of paying for our current expansive lifestyles.
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