Maurice Ile Durable: “Not dead horse yet, but very soon to be…”

Interview: Dr Vasantt Jogoo, Consultant in Sustainable Development

“Many developed countries are generating greater wealth on a smaller proportion of built-up areas. We are obviously using land inefficiently…”

“A combination of ring road, light rail and harbour bridge is indeed an overkill”

Dr Vasantt Jogoo is a freelance consultant in sustainable development, with a special interest in low-carbon development and land-use strategies. He has degrees in geography, urban planning and environmental management. Prior to joining the Commonwealth Secretariat, London, where he held the position of Adviser and Head in the Small States, Environment and Economic Management Section, he served the African Development Bank as its Lead Environmentalist. He also served the institution as its acting Secretary General for a short period when a new President was installed in 2005. Recently he chaired the Maurice Ile Durable (MID) Fund Committee from November 2011 to June 2012.

In the interview that follows he gives his very pertinent views on ongoing projects in the country, both public and private, and points to lack of a coherent, holistic and well-coordinated approach – in physical planning both at the national level and at local development level — which should be driven by the government instead of the latter being a passive follower of private sector initiatives. He is convinced that local expertise with community participation can best identify the how and why of projects, better than foreigners because of the formers’ indigenous knowledge, but unfortunately they are sidelined by decision makers to the detriment of the country. Further, he makes some telling comments about the MID project which has not even started to have labour pains yet! – i.e. is stalling badly. Read on…

Mauritius Times: A team of Singaporean experts have been called in by Government to analyse the causes of the flash floods which took the lives of 11 people in Port Louis last month and to suggest corrective measures. Do you anticipate their telling us what we already know or would you think that we need to go for a full-fledged commission of inquiry, chaired by a judge and assisted by experts in a number of disciplines, so that we can get to the bottom of the matter?

Dr Vasantt Jogoo: I have no doubt about it. The Singaporeans will not be able to tell us anything we do not know already! We have, in Mauritius, an adequate pool of experts in various fields but alas, as the saying goes, “nul n’est prophète dans son pays”. If our government has so much faith in the Singaporeans, it should try to understand why Singapore has been able to make so much progress in the course of a few decades only. One reason is that the Government of Singapore respects its technicians. They enjoy an unparalleled status. Here in Mauritius, it is the administrative cadres who get to make decisions and this is reflected in the salary scales of the Pay Research Bureau. If Mauritius continues to shun its technicians, it will never become another Singapore!

Given that there have been 11 deaths, and no consensus among stakeholders on the causes, it is in our best interest to set up a commission of inquiry that can look into all aspects objectively and come up with recommendations that will help us deal with future disaster risks. We can describe the flash floods as a “freak event”, a consequence of climate change, a natural calamity, whatever… But the fact remains that with climate change now a reality, such events are going to be more frequent and more intense. It is therefore in our own interest to adapt and enhance our disaster risk management tools.

* Most Mauritius however seem to have an ‘expert’ opinion on the causes of that flash flood and sometimes on a number of matters that affect their lives. We may choose to deride the views of the ‘Mauricien lambda’, but the point has been made, here and elsewhere, that failure to take into account indigenous knowledge at the local community level often leads to disasters in development projects. Does that ring a bell?

One of the pre-requisites of a successful project is community participation and buy-in at the initial stages of its conception and design. Despite some limitations, community participation is a well-researched methodology that can be applied to projects that have the potential to affect the community. When a community participates in the design of a project, it becomes part of it and shares in its ownership. If a project is successful, the community shares the glory. Likewise, when something goes wrong, the community shares the burden of failure. In a project where the community has had no say, it is normal to expect its members to feel discharged of any responsibility and cast all the blame on the powers in place.

* If we were to go beyond ascertaining whether the factors said to be responsible for the flash flood – Ring Road, Third Lane on M1, Ruisseau du Pouce, absence of radar and appropriate, timely action at municipal and central government levels, etc., – are indeed the real ‘culprits’, there is also the issue of town and country planning. We seem to have ridden roughshod over this imperative and the norms and rules set out in such planning, haven’t we? Why is that so?

Town and Country planning is a vital government function. Unfortunately, governments in Mauritius have not taken this seriously. There have, of course, been attempts to establish national physical development strategies in the past. From MATIM (Mission d’aménagement du Territoire de l’Ile Maurice) in 1977 to the last National Development Strategy in 2005, there have been a series of master plans that have been developed but which have never been really implemented. True, some of their provisions have been translated into the local authority’s “Outline Schemes” but, as you are aware, there are a number of mechanisms that exist (devised by the government) to bypass statutory provisions of outline schemes.

The failure to effectively implement any national physical development plan is due to a number of reasons. One is the very fact that planning has for very long been developed and applied as an inflexible tool. It “freezes” the use of land for long periods of time, during which international, national and local conditions may have evolved. Thus we miss out on opportunities for development. But the main reason we don’t see much planning, and much support from Government, is because of vested interests. The Business-Industry-Land Developer lobby is the one that wants to direct where development is to take place. It decides where it wants to set up shop, irrespective of the environmental quality of the land or the likely impacts it can produce. The government is merely a facilitator and in many cases even invests heavily in infrastructure to service those areas that have been developed at the behest of the private sector. What we need is a planning system that is flexible enough to accommodate changing conditions and, at the same time, a government that has the political will to dictate where development should go for the greater good of the community and the environment.

* There may be good reasons, including climate change itself, for revisiting the planning of our towns and countryside, but could it be that we have not given ourselves the necessary means – human resources, legal muscle… – to ensure that planning norms and rules are adhered to by all stakeholders?

There is no real political will to implement a strong and effective physical planning system. Successive governments have consequently not invested in the necessary resources. It is not in the interest of a government that has adopted a laissez-faire attitude and a management-by-crisis approach in the conduct of its business. Our national planning apparatus is tied up with a ministry that is at the bottom of the ministerial hierarchy and the local authorities are staffed by poorly trained technicians. There is not much we can hope for unfortunately. This weak planning system seems to serve the purpose of governments of the day. The long-term impacts of poor planning will be the headache of governments to come…

* One recurrent ‘culprit’ with regard to such matters is interference by politicians who would be pandering to the private and pecuniary interests of business lobbies and otherwise. What does your professional experience tell you about this criticism? Is it unfair given that politicians make for a convenient and easy punching bag?

Political interference in the decision-making process has become so obnoxious that many public servants have more or less abdicated their responsibilities. If the officer does not pander to the politicians’ wish, he/she will be marked and suffer in a number of ways. That’s why we now see such large numbers of officers who refuse to take decisions. Worse, they have developed a “don’t care” attitude so long as they get their paycheck at the end of the month. Many resort to sideline activities as the recent Ponzi schemes have brought to evidence with so many police officers involved as agents. An enforcement officer packs laptops in his car boot for delivery to customers when he goes on site visits. Who does not know about similar cases? Politicians think in 5-year segments and it’s not the average Mauritian’s welfare that is at the core of their concerns. They are actively seeking support to consolidate their bases and they know it is the moneyed-few who can give them that support. After a couple of terms in office, many a politician has himself graduated to businessman with interests in multi-million ventures. It is only natural that, in times of distress when voters feel they have been cheated, they become punching bags, not because this is convenient, but rather because they put themselves deliberately in that position.

* It does seem that business and trade lobbies indeed carried the day by successfully having the Highlands Project (which was intended to decentralise Port Louis) aborted at the stage of the drawing board itself. Did you buy the argument that the private partners who would have been involved in that project were going to reap inordinate benefits? Or is there more to it than meets the eye?

The need to decentralize has been argued for very successfully over the years. Since MATIM’s days, it was felt that Port Louis could not sustain the pace of development, given its geography, limited space, problems of access, and likelihood of catastrophes, natural or otherwise. I think the Highlands Project reached a fairly advanced stage, with the motorway network and residential morcellements already developed. I, therefore, do not buy the “inordinate benefits” argument. If that was the case, then a number of projects should have been shelved. What I find a bit suspicious is the fact that the announcement to drop the Highlands Project came just a few days after the “Neotown Project” in Port Louis was launched. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see the connection!

* That argument pertaining to private contractors/partners walking away with excessive benefits in Build Operate Transfer or Public Private Partnership projects should also hold true in the case of the Toll Road Network involving Colas/Bouygues, shouldn’t it?

Absolutely. The opposition has done a good job at highlighting the numerous inconsistencies surrounding the whole decongestion programme. There is a total lack of transparency in the manner these projects (in fact, all government projects) are conceived, designed, awarded and implemented. The government has to realize that it is public money that is involved and the public, therefore, has the right to know. But more importantly, the community has to be involved in some way or another in the development of a project. Once the ownership of a project is shared, there will be fewer embarrassing questions to answer.

But I am convinced that much of the gridlock we experience on our road network is by design. As far back as 1994, I had pointed out in a press article that the 13-km stretch of motorway between St. Jean and Port Louis had yielded no less than a dozen contracts to try to solve the congestion problem (flyover, bypass, crawler-lane, widening, upgrading of roundabout, etc). 20 years down the road, and billions of rupees later, we still have a major problem on our roads. We keep solving the problem in bits and pieces and never try to see the network as a whole. You get the impression that engineers are actually designing gridlocks rather than solving problems. We can assume that the few consulting firms and road builders (and now toll collectors) sharing the market are the ones laughing their way to the bank.

* To come back to the aborted Port Louis decentralization project, Dr Jogoo, it may be argued that there would have been no need for the Ring Road, the Harbour Bridge – possibly the Light Railway Project as well – and to provide for astronomical capital outlays if we had decided to move towards Highlands. What do you think?

We have absolutely no idea how decisions are made at government level. All consultants’ reports are tagged confidential and we, as stakeholders, have no access to any of the information they contain. So we cannot be blamed if we start casting doubt on the desirability of certain projects, particularly when huge investments are involved and in the absence of master plans.

In the case of the mass transit project, we know that the minimum threshold for a viable light rail system is one million inhabitants. Large cities with bigger populations than a million have opted for buses. And we are trying to develop a light rail system to cater to a population that is barely half a million (the Curepipe-Port Louis corridor)! There is something that is not very clear here, and I would have really wished for an open debate on the issue. We must not forget an equation: light rail = heavy costs! So, my instinct tells me that a combination of ring road, light rail and harbour bridge is indeed an overkill.

* Let’s go back to town and country planning. It was Percy Mistry who, if I am not mistaken, initially argued, in the columns of this paper, that the future (successful) development of Mauritius will rest on the best use that we make of our limited land resources. Whatever we plan to put up – whether it’s an Education or Medical or ICT hub or Services hub, etc., — will hinge upon an appropriate and wise land use. We have instead gone for the IRS/ERS projects for the (one-off) FDI inflows. It would seem the politicians chose not to listen. How does a town and country planner react to that? Another ‘Illovo’-type missed opportunity?

As a small island state, we obviously have very limited land resources. We have, unfortunately, as a result of poor (or lack of) planning already urbanized almost 25% of the territory. Planners are terribly frustrated by the lack of attention being given by politicians (and the land-developer lobby) to the vital role that planning plays in the judicious use of scarce resources. Percy Mistry is right when he says that for the sake of one-off FDI inflows we are selling off chunks of our territory rather than preserving them for some future and higher use. More so when we see that some of the IRS projects are being built on what is clearly environmentally-sensitive land! Many developed countries are generating greater wealth on a smaller proportion of built-up areas. We are obviously using land inefficiently. The changing climate and the increasing vulnerability of the island make a strong case for a more effective planning system. The quicker politicians realize what they are jeopardizing (and take corrective measures), the better it will be for the generations to come.

* The Sugar Insurance Fund Board website informs us that some 20,000 small planters have abandoned their plantations, representing some 4000 acres of land, during the last five to six years in the wake of the expiration of the Sugar Protocol. It’s not likely that the younger generation will go back to the field, and it seems quite probable that these lands will lay idle for a number of years and/or ultimately sold off to those who already control most of the country’s landed properties. It might be opportune today to revisit the Land Bank project which was talked about in the 60s or 70s – that is if the democratization of the economy is still on. Your opinion?

It’s true that small planters are increasingly abandoning sugar cane cultivation. The costs involved are so high that this is no longer a viable activity. But this does not mean that they want to part away with a resource that has probably been handed down through generations. The Land Bank project implies a certain amount of compulsory acquisitions, consolidation of lots, and its eventual use for a possible greater good. Small planters are, unless I am mistaken, still very much attached to their plots, and I don’t think dispossessing them would go towards democratization of the economy. Land banking did not fly in the 70s, and I doubt it will at this juncture, particularly if it is to rely on small planters’ holdings.

* Yan Hookoomsing of the Centre for Alternative Research and Studies has suggested in a newspaper interview that these lands could be put to use for energy production with the setting up of mini-photovoltaic farms. That would amount to a concrete contribution to the democratization agenda, don’t you think? The Seetarams are leading by example, it would appear, on government lands…

Indeed, all land lying fallow should be encouraged to find alternative uses. When we add the lots lying idle in urban areas to those that are being abandoned by small planters, the acreage is quite staggering. This is obviously a waste of resources. In urban areas, vacant lots constitute a blight and a definite nuisance. These lots need to be put back to productive use, and electricity generation is one such use. Urban farming can also be a worthwhile option to explore given the need for the country to boost its food production. But we have to bear in mind that every project needs to operate at a certain scale to be profitable. As for the Seetarams, I do not think this is a good example of democratization…

* We were talking earlier about the influence of politicians in certain decision-making processes. The Maurice Ile Durable Project was initiated at the highest political level, but it would seem to have stalled at the starting blocks. Dead horse, is it?

Not dead horse yet, but very soon to be if the Prime Minister (who personally laid claim to the project) does not shake his establishment. We have to know that the MID project has suffered, since its launching, from a leadership problem. Just recently, from Davos we heard Mr Joel de Rosnay announcing that MID was now at a cruising speed and that we need to go a level higher, when all Mauritians know that MID is still in labour!! When we hear such utterances from people that the Prime Minister considers as the captains of his project, then we are bound to despair.

Overall, the MID process has been costly but ill-conceived and poorly implemented. A green paper was produced in 2011, but it was anything but a green paper. The national consultations then followed without any sense of direction (and completely ignoring the green paper). Consultants were recruited after the consultations were completed and directed to work on the sectoral reports produced by the sub-committees. To top it all, the process was overseen by an “expert” lent to us by the French authorities. That expert was trained in a military school, has been a politician and advisor to a French cabinet minister. He had dubious experience in sustainable development. He was simply a process manager, laid claim to an office at the Prime Minister’s Office (when he was actually supposed to provide at least part time technical support to the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development), and failed the process by imposing unrealistic deadlines and ignoring local realities while trying to emulate the French “Grenelles de l’environnement” which 3 out of 4 French persons consider a failure!

As of today, there is still no MID policy or action plan. What is being claimed as MID concept or project is still in the brains of a few, but the vast majority of Mauritians have yet to see anything tangible. Activities connected to sustainable development were initiated in the 80s and since then we’ve had a series of legislations, regulations, environment investment programmes, albeit in an uncoordinated manner. The MID project was supposed to change all that and bring about a “paradigm shift” where developmental decisions would not be solely on economic terms but on environmental and social criteria as well.

The MID as it stands today is simply a label that is being used to stick on what has already been going on for the past few decades. But what is more surprising is the fact that the Ministry of Finance is helping the demise of MID by actively undermining the process: it has launched its own Economic and Social Transformation Project that is competing with MID (and winning) while reaping millions in the form of MID tax.

* Published in print edition on 27 April 2013

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