“The time has come for the multitude… to cut the dead wood…”

Interview: Mrinal Roy —

 ‘Regrettably, it is abundantly clear that the government is no better than the incumbent government as regards transparency and meritocracy’

 ‘What is important now is that the ex-Prime Minister gets a fair trial… bearing in mind that the public expects credible answers to their own legitimate interrogations’

The government’s first year in power has raised questions whether it is addressing the right real issues confronting the nation. On the other hand, the opposition parties also look to be in serious disarray as far as attending to the major challenges facing the country are concerned, being more adept at finding fault with each other to keep the power game going on. We asked Mrinal Roy, former Director-General of the Mauritius Sugar Syndicate, whether he has reasons to be optimistic in the circumstances. He feels there is much room for improvement if our political parties manage to get out of the ruts in which they appear to be caught up. Read on:

Mauritius Times: Let’s start with a cliché question, and talk about the good, the bad and the ugly that have defined 2015. What’s your take on these different counts?

Mrinal Roy: In a year of disappointing growth, tourism tallied a singular performance of a record 1.15 million tourists following the broader open sky strategy, the intensification of our promotional campaigns in both traditional and new emerging markets as well the offer of a more competitive product.

Another laudable performance of Mauritius was the rich harvest of 185 medals including 66 of gold, at the 9th Island Games in Reunion in August 2015 when Mauritius came out second after the host country. It was a high moment for our sports. Hats off to the athletes.

In the global context, the good has been the approval, after 23 years of procrastination, of the COP21 Agreement on 12 December 2015 by 195 countries, which provides a framework to significantly reduce carbon emissions by slashing the use of crude oil and coal in the world which are the main causes of rising and damaging emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, Subject to the imperative that it is rigorously implemented by one and all, it ushers hopes for mankind and future generations that our planet can be saved from the irresponsible greed of its industrial predators.

The good has also been the sense of solidarity and ready help of ordinary citizens in Europe with basic necessities and food to beleaguered refugees fleeing war and deprivation in search of a better future. The good has furthermore been Pope Francis’ messages of peace and harmony in the teeth of rising extremism and on the imperative of urgently addressing the pervasive problem of rising inequality in the world.

The bad was that the past year was messy. On many accounts, the rhetoric was not mirrored in action. The bad has also been that the crying lessons of the people’s vote at the last December polls have neither been learnt by the defeated Labour and MMM parties and their leaders who instead of stepping down are still rooted to their posts (to the detriment of their respective parties) nor by the ruling Lalyans Lepep.

The ugly has been the unnecessary ‘brutality’ and high handedness which have tainted some major ‘cleansing’ actions of the past year in a country which unlike the violent clamours of a Roman Arena is governed by the paramount rule of law and the independence of the judiciary within the separation of powers enshrined in our Constitution.

In a global context, the ugly has also been the rise of extremism, intolerance and the wanton murder of the innocent in a context when much more needs to be urgently done to bring about lasting peace and harmony in the conflict zones of the world.

* If 2015 has been eventful in many respects, one or two photos pertaining to the arrest of the former Prime Minister on a fateful Friday afternoon and the hauling of two safes taken from his residence at Line Barracks are strong visuals most of our compatriots are not likely to forget so soon. Too bad for the man – and his Party, isn’t it?

No one is above the law and everyone is answerable for any alleged wrong doings. However, the rights of the accused and the sacrosanct human rights principle of présomption d’innocence are equally paramount. There are no kangaroo courts here. Our judicial system which safeguards due process must therefore ensure that no one is the subject of frivolous and unfounded charge-sheets. An independent judiciary assures that the rule of law prevails at all times as evidenced by the case lodged against a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) which was summarily dismissed by the judiciary recently.

What is important now is that the ex-Prime Minister gets a fair trial in the array of cases against him bearing in mind that the public expects credible answers to their own legitimate interrogations in particular after the startling images of hundreds of millions of cash, half of it reportedly in foreign currency, spilling out of safes and bulging suitcases.

The weight of such serious accusations coupled with his disavowal by the people at the last December polls should have, as in any vibrant democracy, led the ex-PM to step down. This would have enabled the Party to play under a new leadership its vital role in the opposition as a critical watchdog and of proactively engaging the government on policy and legislative matters. The ex-PM hold on the leadership of Labour therefore forces the Party to keep a low profile in spite of all that has happened in the past year and hobbles the Party’s legitimate role in the opposition.

* But it does not look like the Phoenix will rise from its ashes any time soon. A real pity indeed for a party whose imprint on national affairs across the board remains unequalled, so the question is not whether it should be saved, but rather can it be saved and, if so, at what cost?

The Labour Party is the most important and most valued legacy of our political history. In the common psyche of the multitude it epitomises the loftiest ideals, an ethos, an undaunted spirit and a selfless sense of service to the nation and in particular the downtrodden by the founding leaders of our fight for independence.

No one and certainly not a cohort of discredited apparatchiks can indefinitely hold hostage such a Party whose seminal values stem from the highest ideals of inclusiveness, equality, sharing, solidarity and the fight for fundamental rights of the left movement in the world.

The Party’s defeat at the last polls is also an indictment of all the Labour MLAs of the previous government who voted to suspend the Legislative Assembly for most of last year and who also endorsed the widely disputed constitutional reforms. The time has therefore come for the multitude who avows inheritance to the values and ethos of Labour to cut the dead wood and wrest the party back to enable it to once again play its premier political role in the country around a new and inspiring young leadership, for the benefit of the people.

* In the quest for power at any cost by some of the present-day generation of politicians, the fragmentation of the power base has set in and politicians trying to finish off rivals seem to have lost track of the mission and the ideals which their parties stood for at their inception. Where will this ever-aggravating unending fratricidal strife lead us to?

The political landscape is marred by leaders censured by the people holding on firmly to their posts despite palace uprisings and the ruling alliance doing the exact opposite of its professed commitment to ‘conduct business on the principles of discipline, transparency, accountability and exemplary governance’. To put it simply, ideals and political ethics have nosed dived to appalling levels aeons distanced from those who won our freedom.

The hounding of the ex-PM generates a pervasive perception that we are witnessing a sordid and unequal battle of clans, a vindictive settling of scores with no holds barred. This is all so unseemly in our democracy.

There are only opponents (and not enemies) in politics and the political debate is one of ideas and policies as to how to establish a better and more inclusive socio-economic order in the country. The prime object of politics must be the constant upgrading of the standard of living and welfare of the people. Over the last decades, the relentless pursuit of power at all costs seem to have taken hold of the main political parties continuously jockeying for the ideal winning alliance most likely to keep or wrest power.

Mauritius certainly deserves better. The present entrenched culture of endless political shenanigans and the sorry state of governance perpetuated by each change of regime cannot go on and on ad nauseam.

* Given the political circus we are getting used to from one election to the other, would you say politicians do all that suits their convenience and that voters are becoming “les dindons de la farce”? Will the people finally feel blasé with politics itself?

An enlightened electorate can never be “les dindons de la farce” or not be vigilant, as was the case at the last general elections, to stand up as one to defend its fundamental rights and interests against all odds and forecasts. It is evidence that the electorate, far from being blasé, is very much tuned to the political reality of Mauritius and would never renege on its paramount prerogatives of choosing which government they can trust to run the affairs of the country.

Trust is important for the electorate. So long as the two disowned leaders remain at the head of the opposition parties, these cannot represent l’alternance. Furthermore, the MMM which has never won general elections on its own is now weakened by significant inroads made into its traditional electorate by the PMSD, Muvman Liberater and the split in the Party. Pipe dreams are not reality.

* In the meantime, there’s the ‘old man’ back in the driving seat, and he seems to be doing rather well. There’s the perception of a firm hand at the helm, very much in command of the troops and of the agenda. What do you think?

We must not forget that it is the presence of the Sir Anerood Jugnauth (SAJ) at the head of Lalyans Lepep which anchored the revolt and censure against the Labour-MMM alliance. The country is indebted to him for that. A firm hand and decisiveness at the helm are necessary but not sufficient attributes of a sound leadership. Leadership also means being a fair arbiter of public interest at all times and being able above all to see the wood for the trees. Firmness cannot be extrapolated into an all-encompassing supreme mantra. It has to be tempered by caring and a sense of justice.

The Prime Minister’s omnipresence in diverse fora both locally and abroad to drive the economic agenda is evidence of his intent to be resolutely hands on and very much in command. At the head of a team of largely greenhorns, his reassuring presence is very often necessary. However, his biggest challenge will be to ensure in spite of the urgency of creating employment to absorb the unemployed and of boosting growth, that all projects are rigorously appraised accordingly first before being approved. He must ensure that the projects also provide employment in all categories of jobs available to match the spectrum of unemployed with the support of appropriate skilling plans and that public interests are in no way compromised.

* With SAJ at the helm, there’s no arguing about who decides what: ‘government is government, and it’s government that decides’, as said by his Minister of Health – but even at the cost of going back on its Government Programme like, for instance, the method of appointment of CEOs, or when it appears to be going against the general interest as demonstrated in the cases relating to the development of Smart Cities, Landlell Mills, Good Governance and the Good Governance and Integrity Reporting Bill, etc…

Democratic Mauritius and the people abhor and will not stand for such balderdash. Regrettably, it is abundantly clear that the government is no better than the incumbent government as regards transparency and meritocracy in the method of appointments to key posts of the government establishment or as CEOs or Chairmen or Board members of State owned companies or parastatal bodies. In some respects it is worse. The appointment of political appointees instead of career diplomats as Ambassadors in some important countries where a well-honed economic diplomacy is essential is simply daft. Instead of only paying lip service to good governance, the government must lead by example and beef it up through a more robust system of check and balances and timely audits. This is not presently the case.

Good governance also means a rigorous appraisal of all projects or ministerial proposals to assure the judiciousness of all government decisions. This was one of the major shortcomings of the system of governance of the previous government. Appraisal means a comprehensive assessment of issues and grasp of its ins and outs without which sound decisions cannot be taken. Some of the decisions taken therefore do not meet the test of objective scrutiny.

For example the recent government piecemeal decisions regarding the sugar sector which evades addressing a host of core issues, has provoked ire and exasperation among the planting community. These core issues relate inter alia to the competitiveness and commercial viability of continuing the costly production of white sugar in a market price context generating continued losses since 2013 or the urgent implementation of the long overdue commitment agreed since December 2007 of granting a 35% shareholding to planters and workers in the sugar cane sector.

* But the Prime Minister seems really confident about the capacity of his government to bring about what he advertises as a “Second Economic Miracle”. Do you have the feeling that he’ll eventually succeed to stun all non-believers?

The electorate voted the government to power in the hope that inter alia those unemployed will find gainful employment, that boosted growth will enhance standards of living, that the objective of a high income economy will be achieved and that growing inequalities will be bridged. The performance of the government during its mandate will therefore also be measured on these key parameters.

The success of the government will be determined by the implementation of the diverse projects being appraised by the Fast Track Committee, in a manner which in terms of deliverables matches and provides a sustainable response to unemployment and growth rate targets to put the country on course to attain a high income economy. The growth rate of 3.4% for 2015 and a forecast of 3.9 % for 2016 are therefore under par compared to a rate of 5.5% required.

It is clear that this process will take time to unfold. It will also require a rigorous monitoring of the projects cleared for implementation to ensure that they are on track on agreed deliverables.

* There are however a number of issues that remain unresolved to this day – those things, which would fall under the heading of ‘Unfinished business’, and that are being carried forward from one government to the next in relation to Education, Civil Service reform, diversification of industries, political financing, Freedom of Information, Declaration of Assets, DTAA, etc. What’s holding us down? Is it the civil service or is it the private sector, or is it politics itself?

This is a very tall agenda. The failure to deliver on this array of outstanding matters is a combination of these causative factors. However, every government has its own deep game.

Where there is a will there is a way. Once a policy decision has been taken, able Ministers teaming up with competent top civil service cadres and experts can after holding consultations with stakeholders make cogent proposals to address each of these issues promptly. These ideal synergic conditions of assuring delivery on these issues are too often not present. However, with the right pooling of the required expertise under a clear policy directive, all these issues can be satisfactorily resolved.

In the case of the diversification of industries say within the ICT sector, the private sector lacks the required expertise to move up the value chain and must necessarily seek the induction of foreign experts and skilled operatives.

* What about the future? Mauritius remains a pleasant place to live in inspite of everything, but what, according to you, are the must-do’s to ensure a better future for its people in the present circumstances?

So many things have to be done in respect of, for example, bridging the growing inequalities in the country, improving health through better life styles and eating habits, ironing out the mismatch between qualifications and skills required in the market place through appropriate skilling programmes or ensuring more wholesome food intake through cogent support to bio-food production.

Furthermore, a more robust rate of growth is essential to help absorb the 42,600 unemployed including those with university qualifications. The educational content at secondary and tertiary level must be recast and tailored to impart the pointed skills required in the market place to carry Mauritius through the impetus of higher skills to a high income economy.

In contrast to the previous generation, young university graduate cadres have salaries and disposable incomes which do not allow them to buy existential needs such as a car to commute to work, a house or going on holidays. There is total mismatch between their salary and the substantial sums required to buy land and build a house from their modest savings. This is a step backwards as their parents could do all this as well as bequeath assets including land to their children. This unacceptable mismatch must be addressed through appropriate corrective policies including a substantive land reform policy. Not to do so would put a larger section of the population in tenuous conditions of livelihood.

In this context, government could initiate a project of truly ‘smart cities’ in greenfield sites where young Mauritians would live according to the work, live and play concept in an eco-friendly environment with clean waste disposal systems and making a maximum use of green energy sources, cycling lanes and pedestrian spaces in a congenial habitat.

We should also encourage a culture of entrepreneurship in the country with the support of funds for start-ups and incubator programmes. This will provide opportunities for the innovative young to convert their business ideas into viable business entities specially in the services sector and become independent economic actors.

Government must also give substance to the bio-food programme announced, through support schemes to produce bio-vegetables in green houses. Wholesome vegetable consumption helps protect the health of the population.

It is equally important that the government start a programme to clean up and embellish the environment including public spaces as well as plan for more green parks around the country for recreational and other open air health centred activities.

Such initiatives and so many more are a must to improve conditions of livelihood and quality of life to ensure a better future.

 

 

 

* Published in print edition on 31 December 2015

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