By Honita C
‘A government of the people, for the people, by the people’—these words of Abraham Lincoln came to define the modern face of the political arrangement called democracy. This celebrated political spirit coupled with transparency, accountability, equality, sovereignty, freedom of expression and access to information grants democracy the legitimacy and authority it enjoys. By definition, Mauritius is a democracy. Talk about our luck in attracting foreign direct investment and you will get this luck accredited to the Mauritian democratic political stability. But if we are so true to the essence of democracy and that the public truly is at the heart of our concerns, then how come even the most basic information and national knowledge is made to swivel right pass the savoir of Mauritian citizens? Why is it that the heftily-bound legal documents in which the codes of behaviour and laws of the country are enshrined are not-so-easily accessible in their entirety to the general public? Why are the reports of the numerous ‘commission d’enquêtes’ never made public (although they are usually set with the objective to ‘mettre les choses au clair’). Why are investment plans and agreements involving the use of national resources never published for public scrutiny? It is almost as if we are living on the Queen’s Land – where the fate of daffodils and swans are to be solely determined by Her Majesty!
Steering clear from the La Sentinelle scandal which brought forth the issue of freedom of the press, what I believe to be the fundamental problem in our country is: absence of access to information. As per our designation as a democracy, accessibility to information should unquestionably be granted to the general public. As it is the citizens of a democracy who, by voting for a particular party, accord them the legitimacy to form a government in order to manage the country’s human, natural and economic resources, it is only pure democratic logic that (i) we have complete knowledge of what our rights are composed of and the regulations by which we are bound (ii) we are provided with unbiased information concerning the functioning of the public bodies of our system (iii) we are made aware of how national resources are being put to use and under which conditions and concessions. Rather unfortunately, these ethics find no following in Mauritius.
Our historical experiences of French and British colonisation open Mauritius to influence from both worlds. This is effectively reflected in our legal traditions: civilian codes are drawn from the French system while corporate laws, criminal laws and so on are sourced from the British practices. In this light, it will be very fair to declare that the Mauritian legal structure is highly comprehensive and regulates each and every required sector. But sadly, this legal expansiveness only exposes itself to the eyes of the legal practitioners and policy makers. Civilians, who actually are the largest population segment concerned by these laws, remain largely unaware of them. For instance, employees are often unaware of the minimum wage barriers, their pension rights and salary revision exercises. Whenever a new Bill or legislation is passed, it is either published in the scarcely seen Government Gazette or the Mauritian public can catch a glimpse of it at the flashing seconds of overview allocated to its announcement on the MBC News.
Recent cases showed us the double-standard circulating in the veins of our cherished democracy. Apparently carried out to unveil the truth and bring justice, the commission d’enquête on the Riche Terre land reallocation case which culminated into the Noël-Ramkissoon Report, has till date not seen the light of the day. The concerned cohort still need to know whether they were legally right or wrong – or was the government’s decision to oust them faulted. No doubt the MCB-NPF Commission d’enquête will have a similar end. The public will be subjected only to media-reported personal assessments of deductions from accessed extracts of the report – never the report itself!
The climate of copious foreign direct investment in which Mauritius thrives today understandably demands complementary inputs from our government. Roads, infrastructure, water, electricity and land are incentives which have to be provided to the investors who seek to bring their capital to the Mauritian soil. However, it remains that government should ensure that these resources are bestowed upon the investors in complete transparency; it must see to it that in redistributing these resources to foreigners, locals are not penalized. Not only will such an endeavour reassure the Mauritian population of the incorruptibility of the government but also ascertain a welcoming integration of the immigrant investors in our midst.
Nevertheless, the way in which the Jin Fei project is being dealt with in Mauritius does not promise any such harmonizing scenario. Not only was the land reallocation done in an unaccountable and sneaky fashion, even the contents of the agreement have been tightly hidden. Several questions concerning the project asked at the parliamentary sessions were effectively evaded on every single occasion. For instance, at the 22nd June 2010 parliamentary gathering, questions pertaining to the loss and creation of jobs relating to Jin Fei Economic Zone received ambiguous answers from the Minister of Housing and Lands.
I furthermore find that our tradition of the yearly budget presentation functions in a similar illogical vein of ‘secretocracy’. The purpose of the yearly budget is claimed to designate how the public’s money is going to be used over that particular year. What I still do not understand is why the yearly budget is presented in isolation? The logical thing to do would have been to complementarily produce an account of the expenses and savings cumulated at the end of the previous budget and accordingly show how the new financial plan will maximize on what has been saved from the last budgetary allocations and why a particular sector requires more funding. The funniest thing is that this information is already worked out and available at the relevant ministries. It only requires the goodwill of the system to surrender those figures for public scrutiny.
But irony of ironies, voilà it is in this climate of perpetual confidentiality and inaccessibility of information that the government has now set up an entire ministry devoted to tertiary education, science, research and technology! Lamenting the lack of research conducted by our country’s educational institutions despite having a highly educated populace, the government is all set to invest huge amounts in the launch of new programs like nano-technology and renewable energy, to establish an action plan on research and development and to attract renowned universities. Aiming to transform Mauritius into a regional centre of excellence in higher education and to develop a research culture, this Ministry has only the entire governmental system of red-taping and mouth-taping to redress or surpass if it is to effectively achieve what is seeks. Till the dawn of democratic transparency of information, let our aspiring researchers and those unfortunate ones who already are researchers, simmer in the frustration of curfewed facts and figures.
* Published in print edition on 6 August 2010