“The smart city is a half-baked idea that will see the conversion of huge chunks of agricultural land to built-up state”

Interview – Vasantt Jogoo

* Good Governance and Integrity Reporting Bill: “Exceptional circumstances call for exception measures…

… but exceptional measures warrant exceptional people at the helm”

* “I don’t think we should talk in terms of “miracle”. A miracle denotes a divine intervention”

Dr Vasantt Jogoo, a freelance consultant in sustainable development, with a special interest in low-carbon development and land-use strategies, 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 some time. He also chaired the Maurice Ile Durable (MID) Fund Committee from November 2011 to June 2012, and served as Chairman of the Mauritius Oceanography Institute this year for a couple of months. In this week’s interview, he addresses isssues relating to governance, the concept of smart cities, government functioning and more. Read on.

Mauritius Times: There is so much going on these days, ‘so much information being thrown at us, so many things being sold to us’ in relation to issues concerning constitutional rights, civil liberties, unexplained wealth, etc., that one can easily get more confused. Are the issues so complex and abstract, that we might lose sight of matters that ought to be of fundamental concern to society?

Vasantt Jogoo: In an article I wrote before the last general elections, I had predicted that an unprecedented “perfect political storm” would sweep the Alliance Lepep to power. I guess the magnitude of the win took even our leaders by surprise. But we must always remember that the elections were won because of the convergence of a number of events, not the quality of candidates.

Many of the elected were not prepared, or groomed, to assume power. They were themselves confused, but they had to give the impression that they had ideas and plans. Many of those given ministerial berths had no real knowledge of their portfolios. They were easily “house trained” by the administration and became over-reliant on the top administrative cadres. That’s a big mistake.

The other mistake was for the government to “over-rely” on a handful of advisers (3 to be exact) who had full control of what went into government programmes. Rather than opening up to the vast knowledge reserve that exists within the country and the Mauritian diaspora, these “super-advisers” have become very protective of the power than they wield.

The point I am making is that the issues are not in themselves complex, but they have been made to appear so. It is after nearly 9 months in power that the Prime Minister came up with a Vision Statement. However, in the absence of clear strategies and plans of implementation, ministers have to sell half-baked ideas to the population to give the impression that they are fully in line with the PM’s vision.

* As regards constitutional rights, civil liberties, unexplained wealth, etc., do you personally take issue with whatever is being proposed for what is purported to, amongst others, “promote a culture of good governance and integrity reporting in Mauritius, recover unexplained wealth”, etc., as indicated in the ‘Explanatory Memorandum’ of the ‘The Good Governance and Integrity Reporting Bill’?

Like most Mauritians, I want to see those who amass wealth that is disproportionate to their official income be held accountable. I am all for a culture of good governance and integrity. That said, we know that no law can be perfect. Or put another way, however perfect a law, its effectiveness cannot be guaranteed if we do not have the required institutional capacity to implement it. We are already burdened with so many laws, but we still find it necessary to plug loopholes with new laws. The legal profession seems to have many issues to address but again, like most Mauritians, why should I worry if I have nothing to hide?

* Do you think that exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures, given the depth we have fallen to as far as the prevalence of corruption is concerned and from which, it is said, nothing but the strong arm of the law can provide redress? Especially also given the record of high profile cases with suspects walking away scot-free after long drawn-out processes?

I fully agree that exceptional circumstances call for exception measures. But exceptional measures warrant exceptional people at the helm. It is no exaggeration to say that this Cabinet of ministers has probably the lowest average IQ of all governments we have had since Independence.

People’s trust in the ability and capacity of this government is fast eroding and there is strong doubt that it will be able to successfully fight corruption. We know the PM’s determination to deal with such issues, but a captain alone, however strong and determined he may be, cannot deliver if he is surrounded by weak performers.

I believe that new legislation by itself will not bring much awaited change. We have better roads, but has this reduced the number of accidents? There is a serious doubt about the capacity of the various institutions to implement any legislation. Addressing loopholes in legislation is just part of the story. The government, if it really means business, will need to ensure that the institutions put in place are strong, well managed and adequately resourced

* One would expect our politicians to act reasonably and not tamper with the provisions of the legislation, if it finds its way in our Statute Books, to mark political points or even settle scores. Would that be a serious mistake to make given their track record in matters of good governance itself?

Who said politicians were reasonable people? They say one thing and do something else. Public interest is the least of their concerns. There are only vested interests that need to be protected. It is not surprising, therefore, that they will try to introduce legislation that will hurt the vested interests of the previous regime while safeguarding and fortifying their own. It is a mistake for sure, and this will end only when we get a new crop of dedicated and educated politicians who will put national interest above their own.

* Let’s now talk about the ‘bilan’ of the present government which will soon run into its first year in office. The Prime Minister and his Minister of Finance have laid stress on their commitment to deliver a second “economic miracle” for the country, just as they did in the 1980s – undoubtedly a major challenge given the different economic conditions that prevail globally in 2015. Are you nevertheless optimistic about the government achieving some positive outcomes sooner rather than later?

First of all, I don’t think we should talk in terms of “miracle”. A miracle denotes a divine intervention. What was achieved in the 1980s was a result of sound economic development policies, strong leadership, hard work and discipline. But 2015 is different from the then prevailing situation. I do not believe we can replicate the 1980’s scenario.

To answer your question, I am not optimistic about government achieving positive outcomes anytime soon. I’ll give one reason: the absence of solid safeguard policies. It is my view that the required safeguard policies that are crucial for the effective implementation of a development programme are not yet fully in place to ensure their proper implementation or sustainability. I wish to remind you that safeguard policies (both environmental and social) constitute the cornerstone of sustainable development. The objective of these policies is to prevent and mitigate undue harm to people and their environment in the development process. They provide guidelines for policy makers and decision takers in the identification, preparation, and implementation of programs and projects. They seek to avoid, minimize, or mitigate adverse environmental and social impacts so as to ensure sustainability.

In the early 1980s, the situation was different and there was an urgent need to create jobs. The “produce wealth-pollute-clean up” scenario is neither feasible nor desirable today given that 25% of our territory is already built-up and environmental problems are becoming more threatening to our natural resource base. Experience has shown that the effectiveness and development impact of projects and programs supported by appropriate safeguard policies increases substantially. Furthermore, it is well known that projects undertaken in haste tend to lower standards.

If this government wishes to achieve results, it will have to quickly ensure that we have adequate policies related to Environment Protection, National Physical Development Planning, and National Sustainable Development, Social Development, among others, in place and provided with strong institutional capacity.

* It has been expressed in many quarters and there is broad consensus on the need at this critical juncture for an appropriate political leadership that would ensure cohesiveness and focus to help steer the country’s development towards a more dynamic path away from obtained in past years. Do you find that ingredient present in the government’s undertakings so far?

I subscribe to the notion that there are presently multiple “centres” of power, a consequence of three parties composing the alliance on the one hand, and a power game within the MSM.

It is generally accepted that SAJ was planning to transfer the prime minstership to Pravin Jugnauth sometime this year. Unfortunately, there was a setback, as we all know, due to a Court decision and now we are all awaiting the Court’s ruling on PJ’s appeal. As soon as PJ was out of the Cabinet and the likelihood that he loses his appeal increased, a few MLAs started asserting themselves in the hope that they would be able to step into PJ’s shoes should the Court rule against him. On top of that, Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo has made it absolutely clear that he is not with any party.

For quite some time, we got a feeling that there was no one at the helm, that government had no vision and no sense of direction. Lately, however, SAJ has started to assert himself, presented a Vision Statement, undertaken foreign trips, etc. Last Tuesday, we witnessed a very blunt and aggressive PM in Parliament. So, there is an attempt to slowly take control of government business, and bring about the cohesiveness that is necessary to steer the development agenda. Only time can tell whether SAJ will succeed.

* To be fair towards the political leadership, it is also obvious that the successful implementation of the government’s agenda will rest in large measure on an agile and dynamic public sector. To that effect, a Committee has been set up to work out the strategies and wherewithal to bring about that second “economic miracle”. For having formed part of the Establishment, even from a distance, are you confident that the Civil service and the parastatals can and will live up to that challenge?

In the present economic development model, the development goals will be achieved with or without the civil service and parastatals. The private sector is already in the driving seat. With the fast-track committee in place, the civil servants will merely rubber stamp projects and move them through the system without proper and due diligence. Recently a project was cleared because of the “national interest” tag despite the fact that a wetland exists on the site and is duly inventoried.

* On the other hand, a few of the strategic sectors or upcoming ones of the Mauritian economy, namely Public Infrastructure, Energy, the Blue Economy, External Communication, etc., which taken together will contribute towards delivering the “economic miracle” and where government has a stake, have been shaken up for various reasons, and there have been allegations of impropriety, political interference or absence of good governance – allegedly carried forward from the previous govt. Police investigations are on, but one would expect the present government to set things right by putting in place rule-based norms and practices so that we do not end up with the same messy situations again. What do you think?

It is unfortunate but it seems that this government is making the same mistakes as the previous one. “Norms” and “standards” have yet to become part of the government’s discourse and policies, but the urgency to deliver on overall development promises and creation are overshadowing good judgement.

Let’s take the recent decision to allocate 13 Billion rupees in a road decongestion programme. But actually, this is a road construction programme that will not achieve any decongestion in view of the rate of increase in vehicle ownership. While it is true that road congestion is an issue which has been identified as needing urgent action, we are disappointed that the government does not realise that the road congestion problem cannot be solved solely with more road construction.

The true solution lies in getting commuters out of their cars and onto a mass transit system. This government had the opportunity to come up with a pragmatic public system, but it has failed.

* Insofar as parastatals are concerned, it is said that matters would improve significantly depending in the main on who is sitting in the chairman’s chair and who gets selected as chief executive/general manager and supported by a few independent, non-partisan board members, not amenable to the dictates of and pressures from political quarters or even from the administrative cadres intent on preserving their turfs. What’s your take on that?

I can very well relate to this issue given that I have been myself in the Chair of a parastatal organisation. But I also have the privilege of having been the first political appointee of this government to have been “revoked” after a few months in office!

Now, a Chairperson manages the business of the Board and his reach can only extend up to only where the Board decides. But we must not forget that Boards are predominantly composed of public officials. These are people who spend their time shuttling between Board meetings (and getting paid for attending despite the fact that these meetings are held during normal office hours) and most of them rarely have time to come prepared. Boards, therefore, find it difficult to take strategic decisions.

Furthermore, because a parastatal is set up under the aegis of a parent ministry, there is a tendency of the ministry to interfere in the running of the organisation. I refused to be dictated by my parent ministry’s “instructions” and when that was made abundantly clear, it was time to get rid of me. That was easy, given that the minister was perfectly “housetrained” and apparently willing to be misled into shooting down one from his own party!

So, basically, many parastatals cannot function in the way they were supposed to. It would be much simpler for the government to disband them and make them regular divisions or departments of the ministry (and save tons of money in the process).

* To come back to the Government Programme and its Economic Mission Statement, are you comfortable with the idea of putting up ‘Smart Cities’ for generating growth? It looks like there are serious issues regarding the concept of smart city itself? How really smart is this approach?

There are indeed serious issues regarding the smart city concept itself. I don’t think anyone in government has really grasped the full implications of such a strategy.

A few brilliant analyses in the local press (which have gone unnoticed unfortunately) have already highlighted the extremely generous incentives given to smart city developers that altogether will give large landowners windfall gains of several billions of rupees. Worse still, projects that were initiated under the previous regime and that would have been required to pay up part of the land transfer taxes (e.g. Cap Tamarin and Medine) are being fully exempted under this present scheme.

Furthermore, there are serious issues regarding the legality of such projects. In fact, according to the guidelines on smart cities (published by BOI), these cities need to respect the (i) National Development Strategy, (ii) relevant Outline Planning Schemes and (iii) environmentally sensitive areas. Of the three, the Outline Planning Schemes are binding, and development outside the ambit of the scheme has to follow certain strict procedures. As of date, all the projects are most probably in contravention of the NDS, the Outline Planning Schemes and possibly the ESA.

Another issue that need to be raised is the fact that, as per BOI guidelines, and reiterated by the PM in his Vision Document, smart cities are conceived around the “live, work, play” concept. None of the smart cities brought to our attention so far can satisfy this requirement, given that the nature of the jobs to be created (in hotels, casinos…) will not allow the job holders to access one of the 25% of residential units reserved for Mauritians.

We are not fully conscious of the potential social problems that the creation of elite and wealthy enclaves for foreigners (75%) can generate. Already the existence of South African (Black River) and French enclaves (in the North) has ignited some conflicts. G. Siew, our national smart city champion, has already indicated in international fora that he is expecting in excess of 150,000 expats to fill up the “cities”.

As a development strategy, the smart city is a half-baked idea that will see the conversion of huge chunks of agricultural land to built-up state, the influx of large expatriate populations, unsustainable increases in the price of residential land, etc., simply for a one-off FDI inflow. There is up to now no clear indication of the type and number of jobs that could be created.

We have to realise that, with the continued water-proofing of the land surface, the country now needs only 50mm of rain in a day to cause flooding, closure of schools and other impacts that were until very recently associated with torrential rains of 100mm.

* It has been a long time we have had a government alive to the need of implementing an appropriate town and country-planning programme so as to make best use of our limited land resources. We seem to be going about it haphazardly instead of in a sustainable manner. Why are we unable to do that?

No government, since Independence, has given due recognition to town and country planning. It is considered “anti-development”. This is understandable to some extent because, for long, planning has been fairly rigid in its application. But, like all professions, it has evolved in response to modern day challenges, and is now recognised as an essential tool for achieving sustainability.

In fact, the MSM manifesto had clearly stated that town and country planning will be at the core of its sustainable development agenda to ensure the rational use of land resources. But it seems no one had really paid much attention to what was written. We now have probably the least planning-friendly government in place!

Though the planning portfolio is under a high-ranking minister, we note with concern that the government has completely abdicated its planning responsibility and placed it in the private domain. In fact, the smart cities project demonstrates how the private sector (with the support of BOI) has been given full control of their policy making, conception, planning and implementation. G. Siew (Chairman CIDB, SLDC and Smart City) and C. Wong So (CEO SLDC, Chairman Rodrigues Airport and Chairman RDA) have between them the total control of the smart city development process. And both of them are said to be property developers from the private sector. If that is indeed the case, that would have been unacceptable anywhere else in the world.

Even in India, where a vibrant 100 smart-city programme has been initiated, the Apex Committee set up by government is composed predominantly of top administration and technicians (including the Chief Planning Officer.

 

  • Published in print edition on 20 November 2015

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