J’accuse!

For the shameless rape of this once beautiful Island which Mark Twain compared to Paradise, J’accuse! all the pillagers, past and present

By Ramesh Beeharry

If we are to believe the Mauritius Oracle, corporate social responsibility (CSR) basically amounts to a legal requirement for corporates to donate 2% of their book profits to charitable causes. Conscience Money, perhaps? Well, when you have just been given a 50% reduction on your tax bill (30% to 15%), it’s not that hard to be magnanimous and give away 2%. Viewed through this prism, Mauritius’s CSR policy may be construed as a massive sell-out of the working classes. But Silence is Golden; so nobody says anything, not even the usually vociferous media.

But what is normal CSR about? In 1997 John Elkington postulated that CSR related to a business model that contributes to sustainable development by delivering (1) economic (2) social, and (3) environmental benefits to all stakeholders. This came to be known as the TBL (Triple Bottom Line), as opposed to the traditional Single Bottom Line (SBL); it has since become the accepted benchmark for CSR activity.

Economic (Bottom Line?)

Every schoolboy knows that Profit is the residue that is left after allowing for the cost of all inputs into a business. The book profit used to be — and sadly continues to be so particularly in the developing world — the narrow definition on which CSR policy is based.

But an enlightened enterprise will apply the Jules Dupuit’s cost-benefit analysis (CBA) model which looks at the external and the internal outcome of a particular project. Unfortunately not all corporates apply the SROI (Social Return on Investment) method, although some may end up making involuntary payments (fines) for infringement of environmental and other regulations. But then this in turn depends on stringent monitoring by a corruption-free Enforcement Agency. How many developing countries can boast of having one of those? Does Mauritius?

Social (People)

The social aspect of CSR consists of a fair and equitable treatment of the labour force and the community in which a company carries out its business. Typically a Triple Bottom Line company will pay fair wages to its workforce and contribute financially towards the betterment of community life. How much of this is practised by corporate sector in Mauritius? With a few exceptions, workers are not exactly paid a king’s ransom. In fact it emerges that a massive two-thirds of all workers earn less than Rs 15k a month. What are we waiting for before making Mauritius an equitable society? Our own “Gilets Jaunes!” – which is likely to occur sooner than we think?

As for social welfare, not many companies provide for healthcare, education and other programmes that lead to a betterment of workers’ life condition. The odd scholarship given to one working class child may bring some balm to the conscience for highly paid corporate directors, but it hardly qualifies as a vast social programme. One swallow does not a summer make!

Nor is there an ocean of community projects. We are, and probably will be waiting a long time for the emergence of a local philanthropic Bill Gates or the social initiatives of a local Jamie Dimon. Yet we have our very own multi-billionaires and powerful CEOs. Instead what we have witnessed is the sprouting overnight of fancy Foundations to provide well-paid jobs to the boys and the girls by recycling CSR money!

Environmental (Planet)

Agriculture. From the early days of colonization, the Mauritius corporate sector has only cared to look at the Single Bottom Line. As soon as Man* landed on the island he began to flatten the primal forest for the wood, housing, roads and agriculture — destroying the natural habitat of many plants and fauna in the process.

By the time the baby boomers of my generation were born, over 95% of the forests had disappeared to make way for King Sugar. In our late childhood, we were witness to the drainage programme of vast swathes of marshland in the sugar estates adjacent to our village. With that we saw the disappearance of all the fauna and flora that resided in the thick reed-beds. This was replicated almost everywhere on the island. Now we talk of Ramsaar!

Tourism. With the arrival of the jet-plane in the 1960s, a sedate tourism industry took off vertically in Europe. Eventually, with bigger and faster airplanes, no place on earth was too far for the European holiday-maker.

The Mauritius corporate was not slow in taking up with yet another lucrative activity that would change the landscape forever and, along the way, cause irreversible degradation of the environment. Now nowhere is safe from the trampling of tourist feet. In an ironic move to make tourism appear more palatable, we have invented Eco-tourism. This allows us to create tourist facilities and organize Trails (read Trials for the land) on the few wild places that remained. I need hardly remind the reader that Trampling Feet are poison to plants and their environment.

Residential. Come the 1980s when people became more affluent and bank loans became easier to obtain, the big land-owners saw another opportunity to make big bucks. Playing on the psychology of people and the PIO in particular (yes, we all want our do bigha zameen!), they started to parcel off marginal land for sale, paying scant attention to the environment.

Today’s frequent flooding is the result of these “Morcellement Sauvages”, but everyone except the promoters get blamed. Caveat Emptor, which refers to the principle that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made! Marshy land drained and the lucrative sand removed down to several feet coupled with inadequate drainage are a sure-fire recipe for the kind of flooding where owners sometimes need a rowing boat to access their property. What next? Parcel off the sea, perhaps?

The IRS, ERS, Smart Cities and other permutations of property development — aided and abetted by Government — for the rich, in particular the foreign rich has further exacerbated the stress on the natural resources of a country which is still struggling to provide a decent water supply to its own citizens.

Shopping Malls. It sounds like one of those rare viral diseases, doesn’t it? When Continent came to Phoenix, every Mauritian was delighted. At last we could have variety at affordable price. Though we rued the passing away of the La boutique chinois, we relished the idea of being able to get all our monthly requirements under one roof, coupled with discounts of up to Rs 100 per item.

Seeing the success of Continent, the traditional land-owners have scrambled to imitate the model and cover hundreds of acres of cooling arable land under heat generating concrete. While some have no doubt met with success, others just batte lamoque. Next time you drive past the one at Forbach, just stop a while and have look; you’ll see what I mean.

In an island that is far removed from everywhere, it would make better sense to use the limited amount of land to produce as much food as we can, and aim for self-sufficiency! Alright some people may argue that, with the income generated by property development, we can afford to import all our food requirements. But this argument does not ask what we would do if/when our suppliers have no surplus to export. I am reliably informed that Euro-notes are totally unpalatable!

Fourth Pillar. This brings us neatly to the fourth and probably the most important pillar of Triple Bottom Line. This relates to “future-oriented, inter-generational equity.” In short the much talked-about sustainable development. Everything so far points to selfish short-term profit maximization. Nothing, but absolutely nothing gives the slightest indication of any concern for what we are going to pass on to our children, our children’s children and so on. I daresay, in our selfish chase for more and more profits we have sacrificed much of their inheritance. Alas!

J’accuse!

It’s the same story everywhere. Worldwide Man* has massacred the land, decimated forests, drained wetlands, scarred the landscape in search of underground minerals, poisoned the oceans and the atmosphere, even filled the stratosphere with tons of unwanted debris. Having done irremediable damage to the planet and its environment, He now goes round organizing huge jamborees to lecture to the rest of the world about the Environment! “Oy Vey,” I can hear Tevye’s husky groan in the background.

Because of Man’s* insatiable greed, the development of Mauritius has also been and sadly continues to be an unmitigated disaster for the environment. Regular floods, rising temperatures, dead/dying coral reefs are just three of the potent indicators of the ill-treatment meted out to it over the centuries. In short we have failed miserably to live up to the true spirit of CSR. The two percent of book profits will not address the current aspects of Triple Bottom Line, never mind the interest of future generations. Ours is a sham CSR.

For the shameless rape of this once beautiful Island which Mark Twain compared to Paradise, J’accuse! all the pillagers, past and present.

* Read White Man


* Published in print edition on 14 December 2018

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