High Time To Bite The Bullet
By Mrinal Roy
There is a pervasive clamour from people from all walks of life to cut loose from the current hegemony of the political class over the democratic system in the country. There is a yearning for a radical change in the political landscape
Nineteen U.S. billionaires including investor George Soros, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes have in a recent letter addressed to the 2020 US presidential candidates called for a new wealth tax on their holdings to battle income inequality and climate change and ‘boost public revenue to make America a better place.’ They argued that ‘the next dollar of new tax revenue should come from the most financially fortunate, not from middle-income and lower-income Americans.’ The money raised estimated at some $3 trillion over 10 years could substantially fund investment in programmes including ‘clean energy, universal child care, infrastructure overhauls and tax relief for low-income families.’ They added that ‘those of us in the richest one-tenth of the richest 1%”, who hold nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90%, should be proud to pay a bit more of our fortune forward to America’s future. We want to help solve the biggest challenges of our common future.’
Similar proposals have been made in recent years by Warren Buffett who is among the richest persons in the world, renowned economists such as Nobel laureate Peter Diamond, Oxfam and leading politicians such as presidential contender Senator Elizabeth Warren and others. The underlying reasoning is that beyond a certain level of wealth of the very rich, the marginal dollar is more gainfully used to benefit the common good than the super rich.
Similarly, children from across the world more and more conscious of the catastrophic impact of climate change on the planet and their future are clamouring for more robust actions by governments and polluting industries to reduce the CO2 emissions of their countries and urgently shift to the use of green and renewable energy to halt the adverse consequences of climate change on the world. More than half of all Americans now live in states that have championed legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
State of flux
The world is therefore in a state of flux at the social, economic, environmental and political level. Such game changing initiatives are instantly disseminated to the world by the media. On the political level, people from across the world have over the last years been contesting and demonstrating their ire at the traditional political parties and the political establishment. In Europe, the rise of populism and green parties are shaking up and reshaping the political order. In France, the populist Gilets Jaunes movement for social justice is pursuing its ongoing protests against the policies of the French government for more than 7 months. In Algeria and Sudan people have taken to the streets over months to challenge decried regimes and demand the establishment of democratic civilian rule whereas over the last week hundreds of thousands of protestors have called the Hong Kong authorities to remove a controversial bill legalizing extradition to China.
People are also more and more conscious that rampant inequality is growing in the world. This is epitomized by the Oxfam jolting statistic that in 2018 the 26 richest persons in the world had the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population of some 3.8 billion people. The American billionaires who have asked for a wealth tax to be imposed on their holdings know that the current iniquitous situation is not sustainable. The massive flux of migrants from Latin America to seek a better future in the United States is largely driven by the dire hardships of inequality. Rich countries attract migrants and refugees displaced by wars stoked by the clash of the geopolitical interests of the super powers.
The risks of a no deal Brexit, the dangerous game of brinkmanship opposing the United States and Iran fueled by hawks in both camps when the only sensible way forward is through dialogue and compromise as well as the adverse fallouts of the trade wars triggered by the US on the world growth prospects are detrimental to the world and our economy.
Out of step
Yet, Mauritius seems caught and frozen in a time warp. It seems blind to crying new realities and out of step with the game changing developments in the world.
While the world has woken up to the urgency of potent actions to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 so as to prevent an impending climate change catastrophe on planet Earth, the government is signing up new contracts with the Independent Power Producers to perpetuate the massive use of highly polluting coal which (although about one and a half times more polluting than gasoline) still accounts for some 40% or the largest share of the energy production in the country. The government and coal lobbies continue to bury their heads in the sand despite the glaring evidence of the adverse fall outs of climate change on the country in terms of coastal erosion, rising sea levels and sea temperatures, the bleaching of corals in our lagoons as well as the costly damage wreaked by extreme weather conditions, torrential rains and floods. And despite the fact that as a small island state, Mauritius is particularly vulnerable to the dire impact of climate change.
Far from assuring a fairer tax regime, the government continues to grant massive tax breaks amounting to billions of Rupees of forfeited government tax revenue in the context of the smart city schemes. The latest example of government largesse and generous business facilitation measures is the contested model being used for building the Victoria Terminal and other terminals around the main stations of the Metro Express project.
The Victoria Terminal which is to be built by a private sector consortium will benefit from the same tax breaks as the smart city scheme. This includes an 8-year corporate tax holiday on income generated, exemption of Value Added Tax on capital goods for the first 8 years and an exemption of Customs Duty on various imports. The project is also exempted from the need of an Environment Impact Assessment permit despite being located on land which had initially been reclaimed from the sea. Elementary logic and horse sense would have required the state to be either a shareholder of the Consortium based on a fair market valuation of the 5 arpents and 32 perches of prime state land to be used to house the largest Terminal of the Metro Express project or to obtain a fair rental for the lease of such a prime piece of state land. This is far from being the case. The prime state land is instead being leased on a 60-year lease on terms which are questionable for a state land of such immense value.
Such generous terms blithely short change the public interest, the more so as this contested model is to be replicated in the case of other terminals to be built around the main stations of the Metro Express. What is the commercial and economic rationale of such wanton largesse at the expense of the public interest at a time when government needs to boost its revenue from state assets?
* * *
New breed and vision
As the country moves into general elections mode, it is more and more evident that fundamentally nothing is going to change on the political front. The main political protagonists are still rooted to their posts despite having failed the country and been all successively disavowed by the people. The main political parties are still anchored around the same leaders and front bench members at a time when there is an urgent need for a new breed of young talented Mauritians driven by the highest standards of ethics and code of governance and a new innovative vision to take over, fashion and realize a significantly more prosperous and inclusive future for the benefit of all.
The current government bill on the financing of political parties exposes the mindset and lack of depth and careful thought of the political class. General elections are not about money and the razzmatazz that goes with it. It is about building a contract of trust with the people on the basis of a new projet de société, a commitment of service to the people, good governance, accountability, a level playing field in terms of opportunities, a fair sharing of the fruits of prosperity and inclusiveness. It is also about the calibre, intellect and qualities of the political leaders and the team of candidates being fielded by each party.
Some of the political parties are still lamenting the fact that there is no state financing of political parties when this is clearly anathema to the multitude. Why should the government bill allow private companies to make donations to political parties? This breeds the wrong perception. Vested interests and public interest are often at loggerheads. Government must be and must be seen to be an uncompromising defender of public interest at all times. Occult donations are perceived to be a source of substantial enrichment of parties as well as being shrouded in opacity. The cardinal principles governing donations to political parties must be that they are transparent, by named persons (no companies) solely to the party treasurer, audited and open to public scrutiny and that their scale is strictly limited and regulated and not be a factor of distortion of the democratic process of general and by-elections as supervised by the Electoral Commission.
The government campaigned on the promise of an economic miracle and initially opposed the implementation of the Metro project despite potent reasons to support such a project. After more than four and half years there is no economic miracle but the government is instead extolling and showcasing the merits of implementing the Metro project. The burning question which however remains is whether the commuting time could have been fast tracked through a more fluid metro network which better reflects the present flows of daily commuters instead of replicating the routing of the rail track used by commuters till 1956 as the planned route of the Metro project.
It is more and more evident to the people that the present situation in the country is most unsatisfactory. The people refuse to have to choose from the same crop of politicians and dynasts which have monopolized the political scene and have all in turn been rejected by the people at the polls. Such choices have stunted the prospects of the country, spawned nepotism, poor governance, political high handedness, the appointment of the coterie to key posts, lack of transparency in the decision-making process and costly botched decisions. It has also watered down the quality of politicians. The status quo is therefore untenable.
There is therefore a pervasive clamour in the country from people of all walks of life to cut loose from the current hegemony of the political class over the democratic system in the country. There is a yearning among the people for a radical change in the political landscape and a true democratic system in the country and within the political parties. The people requirements are simple. First and foremost, they want a new breed of talented young Mauritians with a proven track record in their field of activity driven by a high sense of service to the people and good governance to team up and chart an innovative pathway to realize our loftiest ambitions as a nation.
Anybody measuring the prevailing mood of the country knows that there is a real opportunity for such a talented new team to be endorsed and voted to power by the people. The multitude is raring to upset the apple cart and voluntarily help such a team define and implement a common vision of a far better Mauritius for the benefit of all. We have the young talent in our midst to make this happen forthwith. And mainstream Mauritius is geared and ready to join forces to help build a better future. Now is the time to bite the bullet.
* Published in print edition on 12 July 2019
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