‘It has become more urgent than ever before to ask ourselves what kind of society do we wish to live in, how do we get there’

Interview: Sheila Bunwaree

* ‘The Opposition remains fragmented – and has been so far unable to develop a coherent, common vision around a new societal project’

* ‘Recovery would be meaningless if we do not build back better and fairer’

As usual, Prof Sheila Bunwaree, one of the MMM’s leading voices, does not mince her words commenting on various topics of current interest and broader issues regarding our development post-pandemic, the difficulties the middle and lower income categories are facing and the agenda of those running affairs of government on our behalf…


Mauritius Times: Every time we listen to private radios or read the newspapers these days, we are given the impression that things are going from bad to worse in different areas of society and public life. Government spokespersons will tell you that there is an obvious exaggeration in many of those reports for purely political reasons. The situation of state is not sinking, they assert, and most countries are going through a rough patch at the present time due to issues and conditions made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. How do you react to that?

Sheila Bunwaree: I am appalled by the ease with which some people, particularly some of government’s spokespersons tend to put everything on the back of Covid-19. It will be no surprise when they soon find yet another scapegoat: the Russia Ukraine conflict. The one thing that the current regime excels at is finding scapegoats.

That Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the global economy and impacted on various spheres of people’s lives, including here in Mauritius, cannot be denied. But the truth is that many of our economic woes originate from much before Covid-19, largely due to a lack of planning, incoherent policy making, economic mismanagement. For some years now, things have gone on deteriorating. What is more worrying is that there seems to be no strategy and ability to put things right again.

Moreover, our problems are not only in the economic realm, they are present in almost all sectors. When the MSM-led government came to power in 2014, the nation was presented with a government programme entitled ‘Achieving Meaningful Change’. People pinned their hopes on the various projects and promises made to them. Many of these were unkept. Then in 2019, the MSM-led government fooled the electorate once again.

I am not only shocked but also disillusioned by the fact that a number of people who claim to have a sense of justice and righteousness, who promised to engage politics differently, are in fact stuck in a rut. They are getting increasingly immersed in the rot of the current system, without the least desire to challenge the status quo. How can we therefore possibly think that the state is not sinking? A mere glance at the increasing level of misery on the ground highlights the urgency of revisiting and reengineering state-society relations so that we have a stronger, more human and nature-centric state which can respond to emerging complex challenges we are confronted with.

So, when you ask me how do I react, I should tell you that my reaction does not stop at being shocked or disillusioned, it goes beyond. I will fight to my last breath. I will do everything that it takes to bring about an alternative development paradigm and a more just society.

* There is definitely room for improvement in different areas, and the current situation makes it clear that we must re-think many aspects of the way in which we address different issues. Is that being done at the level of the Government, the Opposition, Academia, etc? It does not appear to be the case since we do not know what contributions either of the former are making to the debate…

Speaking about room for improvement can imply that things are not all that bad, that there is scope to ameliorate; but when governance is built on a rotten foundation, the rot needs to be completely scrapped out so that we can start afresh, on a clean slate.

The current situation certainly demands a rethink, a revamping of the system but this cannot be done within the confines of the current economic model and/or a mere alternation of power. The alternative development paradigm I referred to earlier has to be infused with a Whole-of-Society approach, where all stakeholders contribute to the debate. Equally important is an effective functioning of our institutions. We are all aware of the kind of institutional decay that has set in, constituting a major obstacle to the country’s advancement.

It has become more urgent than ever before to ask ourselves what kind of society do we wish to live in, how do we get there and how do we meet the aspirations of the people? It is important to engage the ordinary citizen but where is the platform for this?

Coming to the government – it is often reactive and arrogant. There is no sense of planning, no consultation, no debate. We have an authoritarian government in front of us, the dictum is ‘we are government, we decide’’ even if those decisions are detrimental to national interest. Two recent controversial pieces of legislations which have been pushed down our throat include the IBA Amendment Act and the Petroleum Bill, jeopardizing our rights and the future of younger generations in particular.

As far as the Opposition is concerned, it remains fragmented – and has been so far unable to develop a coherent, common vision around a new societal project. I am certainly not talking of who is going to fill which positions, and who will replace who, but rather of an alternative vision – one which is truly inclusive, more green and more just – one where the fundamental rights of all citizens are respected and promoted and where women’s perspectives and voices are counted in.

Coming to academia where I hail from, I am sorry to say that it is far from playing its role effectively. Universities are known to be repositories of knowledge, sites of resistance and the reflection of a social conscience. But do we hear the voice of the academics apart from a handful. We have some very competent people who could make a significant contribution to the debate but somehow, they seem to have been silenced.

I certainly think that the country has everything to win by revisiting the regulation regarding academics” right to participate in active politics. They should perhaps be given “leave without pay” so as to be able to participate in the political life of the country, thus enriching the debate.

* Let’s take up a few of the issues that are making the headlines. Prices of consumer goods are going up and are causing a negative impact on the standard of living of the poor; petrol prices have again been raised, and rupee depreciation is making things even more difficult. Do you get the impression that the burden of recovery is being shifted onto the shoulders of the poor and the middle class?

Yes, the poor and the middle class are experiencing a rapid erosion in their purchasing power. They are bearing the brunt. This is not only an impression, it is borne out of facts and based on narratives from the ground. They are having great difficulty in making ends meet and in bringing food to the table.

What is shocking is that on the one hand the government talks about building back better and leaving no one behind, having mastered the UN language of recovery very well, but on the other hand, we find a growing chasm between the poor and those at the top, while the middle class is thinning out each day.

I share the view of those who believe that the government could have removed the tax of Rs 2 that was imposed for vaccines and the Covid Solidarity Fund. This could have eased off the pressure a little bit but no one seems to listen.

It is however also important to remember that recovery is much more than a question of fuel prices and standard of living. Recovery means giving a chance to increase our productive capacity, grow our economy, create more jobs, but the deliberate weakening of the Mauritian currency does not seem to help move the economy in this direction. Being hugely dependent on food imports, on raw materials and inputs for its manufacturing sector, inclusive of small businesses, the persistent depreciation of the rupee can easily slide the country into chronic current account deficits and weakening of other macroeconomic fundamentals.

Recovery would be meaningless if we do not build back better and fairer but this demands that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are designed in the DNA of recovery according to Elizabeth Boggs Davidson, Director of SDG impacts at the UN. But are we doing this? Data that a couple of colleagues and myself collected for our forthcoming book on ‘Sustainability and the SDGs – Covid 19 – opportunity or constraints’, shows that the country is quite far from such a recovery process.

* Finance minister Renganaden Padayachy is talking of a projected growth rate of 6.5% this year. That is all well and good, but one would have thought the Finance minister would have directly intervened at the level of price fixing for petroleum products and also with respect to interest rates with a view to stemming the fall in the value of the rupee, and that in the public interest. What do you think?

I certainly think so. A government which claims that it cares for its people, cannot allow the situation to worsen. I have just commented on the rising prices of the petroleum products and the rapidly depreciating rupee, but it is perhaps important to exercise a word of caution here, particularly as regards certain politicians” obsession with growth.

Achieving higher growth levels is no doubt important but if obtaining Padayachy’s projected growth of 6.5% for instance does not create sufficient quality jobs and allows prices to rise rapidly and does not do enough to prevent overshooting on the ecological side in respect of the planetary boundaries, then there is likely to be big trouble ahead.

We will end up with a stagflation i.e., high unemployment, high inflation and demand which remains rather stagnant. Being obsessed with high growth models and rising GDP per head is not tantamount to progress and well-being and therefore not in the public interest.

* There are also issues related to accountability and governance with respect to the running of the once prestigious national university, the UOM, and the MITD in the education sector, marine pollution and shipwrecks at Pointe au Sables coming after the Wakashio oil spill, the presence of Danish investigators here in connection with the CEB’s St Louis Redevelopment Project scandal. What’s your take on these issues?

As I mentioned earlier, our institutions are in state of disarray, thus leading to a lot of chaos and mismanagement. If we take the environmental issue and the question of marine pollution, for instance, one would think that the Wakashio ecological disaster would have served as a good lesson to prevent any further vessels entering our territorial waters and ending up as wrecks on our coral reefs. The three recent ship wrecks in the Pointe aux Sables vicinity testifies to the fact that there is a persistent lack of professionalism and security capacity.

On a different note, our biodiversity is being destroyed at an exponential rate. Do you know that a marine pollution bill was promised at paragraph 222 of the Government Programme 2015-2020 but like the Freedom of Information Act, it was removed from the radar of the MSM-led government programme of 2020- 2024 and never brought back?

The recent alleged cases of corruption at UOM leading to the resignation of the Vice-chancellor as well as the alleged case of sexual harassment linked to the resignation of a professor are all very troubling and reflective of a deeper malaise in our society. A lot more is happening which is not necessarily good and perhaps also impacting on the performance of the university, albeit indirectly contributing to the institution’s poor ranking on the international university ranking index.

Reading what is happening at the MITD with students not having been given their certificates for over 2 years and the failure to upgrade the equipment at the training centres and other associated problems makes us wonder how on earth can we possibly aspire to become a knowledge hub with such poor governance and accountability at our institutions of higher learning.

I am very concerned, all the more so since the country’s human capital is our only resource and should be given the best opportunity to thrive. The failure to optimize on the country’s human capital is a threat to the very sustainability of the island.

* Two other issues which have been in the news lately relate to the World Bank’s reform plan of the sugar sector which is unable to stand on its feet without taxpayers’ assistance to the tune of Rs1.5 billion annually, and the continuing land dispossession issue and Clency Harmon’s declared intention to go on a third hunger strike. These appear on the surface to be two unrelated issues, but in both cases the Government does not seem to be able to make up its mind as to what constitutes the public interest. Why is that so?

Every single issue regarding development is connected and entangled with another especially when we appreciate development not as economic growth per se but rather as a question of rights and entitlements.

In his book, ‘Terres-Possession et Dépossession’, which in fact originates from Clency Harmon’s hunger strike of 2019, Jean Claude de l’Estrac aptly notes: « La répartition très inégale des terres tout au long de notre histoire, est la principale raison encore, des profondes inégalités de notre société. » My own article: ‘Land justice in an unjust society – Harmon’s hunger strike’, published in one of the papers in April 2019, also raises several questions making it clear that the land question is an issue of public interest.

The long-awaited World Bank report on the sugar sector, which was kept from public domain for more than two years, is also of public interest. The recommendations made by the World Bank do not provide for anything particularly innovative however. What seems more important now is to sit around a table with all stakeholders and forge some kind of consensus, based on a win-win formula. Achieving the latter may not be easy, compromises may have to be made, with some people having to let go of certain vested interests. Only then can a greater good be achieved.

Some of the above are perhaps what makes it difficult for government to make up its mind as to what constitutes public interest.

* We’ll hopefully get some clarity and more answers from the PQs which might be raised in relation to the issues we have talked about when Parliament resumes soon… ‘si le Speaker le veut bien’?

Seriously! I have no such hope. Judging by what the current regime and the speaker of the house have reduced the ‘temple of democracy’ to, how can we hope for greater clarity and more answers. I am sure you can recall the very many questions which remained unanswered during the last sittings, the unjustified suspensions of parliamentarians with the Speaker allegedly making an abuse of Standing Order 49, at times.

Getting clarity and more transparency becomes very difficult in a system where there is a domineering presence of the executive, leading to a lack of oversight. It is also deplorable that our parliament does not have a system of parliamentary committees working on key concerns and issues. That could assist in getting some greater clarity on some of the issues we have talked about. We should perhaps also put an end to this practice of nominating unreturned, unlucky candidates at elections, as speaker of the house.

*Another headline grabbing issue these days relate to the Russian “invasion” of Ukraine. We have heard PMSD’s Xavier Duval and the ‘L’Entente de l’Espoir’ calling on the Government to condemn vehemently the Russian war initiative. Aren’t there two sides to this tragedy?

There is always more than one side to a story or a tragedy. And needless to say that when the dynamics unfolding in front of us are in the context of shifting geopolitical tectonic plates within the new global order, the issues become more complex.

Whatever be the complexity, however, an unjust and an unequal war needs to be condemned. Genuine democrats, lovers of peace and freedom and those believing in a common humanity cannot and should not tolerate the kind of aggression Ukraine is being subjected to. We have to stand up in global solidarity to challenge all those trying to infringe the principles of international law, showing no respect for territorial integrity and undermining the UN charter on peace and security.

L’Entente de l’Espoir is absolutely right in inviting the government to vehemently condemn the Russian war initiative, to use your own term.

* Published in print edition on 4 March 2022

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