By Mrinal Roy
Governments must realize that what is important for mainstream citizens and the people at large are concrete policies which boost the country’s prosperity, continuously improve their quality of life and assure their existential needs
The country faces a host of daunting economic, environmental and societal challenges. These relate to such key issues as the faltering performance of the main sectors of the economy, deteriorating economic fundamentals, rising public debt and balance of trade deficit, stunted growth of 3.4%-3.6% during the 2013-2019 period, the potent actions that must be urgently taken to help save planet Earth from an impending climate change disaster, growing inequality, unabated drug trafficking and the rising number of victims of sordid crimes and road accidents in the country.
There is therefore an imperative need to recast the country’s economic model towards more productive and high value added economic activities. The current inordinate scale of private sector investment in lucrative real estate development and smart city projects is untenable as it benefits only the few who are richly endowed with land assets in prime locations. This shortsighted policy has also escalated real estate values in the country thereby denying an increasing proportion of mainstream citizens access to affordable residential land. Such desperate policies to boost economic performance have been detrimental to the country and must be scuttled forthwith in the public interest.
Governments must realize that what is important for mainstream citizens and the people at large are concrete policies which boost the country’s prosperity, continuously improve their quality of life and assure their existential needs. This means equal opportunities and merit based gainful employment, an efficient welfare state which includes free and quality health care, a minimum wage, free education benchmarked on the highest standards prevailing in the world, affordable housing and land reform to assure affordable land prices for residential purposes, policies to reverse income inequality, adequate pensions on retirement and free transport for senior citizens, etc..
These existential concerns of people as well as the imperative of taking potent actions to drastically reduce carbon emissions and urgently reverse the adverse fallouts of climate change on planet Earth are at the centre of the political debate in democracies across the world. They underpin the progressive stances of Bernie Sanders during the current US Democratic Party presidential primaries and the on-going protests against the broad changes proposed by government to the pension system in France.
Mauritius therefore needs to overhaul the welfare state to render it more people friendly, caring and more efficient. It is however imperative that the quality of services provided under social welfare, education and health care costing tens of billions of Rupees every year be urgently upgraded and made more cost effective. It is pointless to take pride in the scope of social protection in the country if the quality of services provided is not up to the highest norms acceptable.
The education sector must also be reviewed to ensure that the pedagogical and coaching standards in place are inclusive and above all inculcate a culture of learning and a yearning for knowledge among all students to enable them develop the full potential of their intellect in order to gainfully contribute as citizens through their diverse qualifications and pointed skills to the advancement of the country instead of the present situation where a large proportion of students are left on the wayside.
If the country is to take bold actions to help the world urgently reverse the adverse fallouts of climate change to assure a more sustainable future for the young and mankind on planet Earth, government must, in line with the overriding objective of keeping average global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, immediately ban the use of highly polluting coal as a feedstock to produce electricity in the country. No coal based power plant contract should therefore be renewed.
Press reports have indicated that one of the Independent Power Producers (IPP) is planning to replace coal by wood chips. How on earth is the burning of wood chips obtained from CO2 absorbing trees be carbon free, eco-friendly and sustainable? Is it not time to cut the balderdash on such a serious matter? The truth is that only 14% of the country’s electricity is produced from a dwindling volume of bagasse whereas 86% of the electricity produced in coal-bagasse IPP power plants stems from coal which is about one and a half times more polluting than gasoline.
It is equally high time to end a policy of double standards which continues to prevail in the sugar industry. The latest example of this is the government support for a Biomass Framework aimed at providing handsome price incentives for the use of sugar cane biomass and other biomass such as cane trash mechanically collected by the corporate planters from their fields for electricity generation when sugar cane planters have for decades been denouncing the pittance paid to them for their sugar cane biomass, bagasse (since 1993 under the Bagasse Transfer Price scheme) used as feedstock in highly profitable power plants to produce electricity and the paltry revenue from molasses. The IPP has already indicated that the government support to the Biomass Framework would mean a hike in the price of electricity to consumers when electricity is already quite expensive in the country. Why should consumers subsidize the handsome profits of IPPs?
Anyone savvy about developments in the world energy sector knows that the only sensible way forward is to ban the use of coal in the country and take bolder steps to enhance our production of electricity from renewable and green sources on the basis of validated and proven technologies. In the interim, we should use, as is the case in an increasing number of countries, natural gas which produces nearly half as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy compared with coal as a “bridge fuel” to lower our carbon emissions while the country transits from fossil fuels to renewable and carbon-neutral forms of energy. The electricity producing natural gas plants must however implement measures to limit methane leakage.
It is not rocket science to comprehend that more than ever before, we need as a nation to mobilize and harness the best professional expertise and intellect of the country to man the key posts of the government Establishment and head the key institutions and state companies of the country. It is only through the synergies of their collective intellect, brainstorming acumen and expertise that the country can chart an innovative strategy to overcome the many daunting challenges faced by the country and steer the country out of the doldrums of underperformance towards a pathway of robust growth and enhanced prosperity for the benefit of all.
However, the lessons of flawed decisions, economic setbacks and costly past blunders have not been learnt. The government seems intent on a nomination spree of political appointees. After the appointment of politicians rejected by the electorate at the last general elections as Ministers and ambassadors at public expense instead of seasoned career diplomats in our foreign outposts, the government now seems bent on putting political appointees to head key state institutions and state companies. Do these political appointments meet the test of objective scrutiny and serve the larger interests of the country?
Despite the grim situation faced by the country, politics, nepotism and the narrow interests of party apparatchiks and the coterie seem to take priority and prevail over every national imperative including the public interest.
The most galling example of this inane situation is the press report regarding the proposed nomination of a political appointee as Governor of the Bank of Mauritius. Central Banks play a pivotal role in inter alia regulating credit and currency, ensuring the stability and soundness of the financial system, conducting monetary policy and managing the exchange rate, regulating and supervising financial institutions and managing the foreign exchange reserves. The Central Banker must therefore command respect through his professional credentials and track record and unswervingly carry his key role in an independent, transparent, credible and competent manner. He cannot be subject to political interference.
It must also be flagged that very often Governors of Central Banks have been internationally renowned and reputed economists such as Alan Greenspan, Ben S. Bernanke or Raghuram Rajan who have been Governors of the US Federal Reserve and the Reserve Bank of India respectively. This is a specialized job which can only be entrusted to those seasoned in the arcane subtleties of monetary policy and central banking. We must therefore ensure that the Governor of the Bank of Mauritius rigorously meets these strict norms and credentials. We have had some hiccups in the past. The country cannot afford to make the wrong choice.
Bane of the country
For too long, narrow politics and the hegemonic control of government over the government Establishment and key state institutions, regulatory bodies and state companies have been the bane of the country. This situation has worsened over time. The upshot is that such poor governance has irreversibly hobbled the prospects of the country. This cannot go on. The new Minister of Finance must have taken stock of this grim situation, exacerbated by the costly promises made to all and sundry against the backdrop of finite government revenue. The lofty hopes and aspirations of the people remain thwarted. The people therefore demand a paradigm shift in governance in the country so that their existential needs can be comprehensively met and the seminal promises of a better socio-economic order and a significantly improved quality of life can finally be honoured.
* Published in print edition on 21 February 2020