“Many people are fed up with the way politics is being conducted locally, and with certain faces leading certain political parties”

Interview: Prof Sheila Bunwaree

* ‘All the opacity and the lack of accountability which pervade our entire system have become very worrying’

* ‘If we do not mobilize, and strategise to develop an implementable, alternative social contract, there may be nothing left to salvage…”

 


Sheila Bunwaree, sociologist, is convinced that the results of the village elections are a clear indication of the people’s rejection of the government’s way of running the country and that the four years of wait before the next general election are but a transition period to the change that is coming. She comments on the lacunae and the weaknesses of the Climate Bill, and also on the Children’s Bill. Saying that the tragic loss of the Woman Police Officer is just one too many, she expresses disgust at the recommendations of the Lam Shang Leen Drug Commission report gathering dust somewhere, and condemns the shenanigans about what is happening about the Angus Road saga and ICAC’s role.


Mauritius Times: The initial reaction of opposition parties following the results of the Village Council elections on Sunday 22nd November has been one of satisfaction to what they perceive as favourable political winds blowing in their favour. What’s your reading of these results?

Sheila Bunwaree: That favourable political winds are blowing in favour of the opposition is undeniable. The village council elections results clearly indicate that important segments of the rural population have turned their back on the government. The rise in the percentage of voters from 50% to 57% is itself an indication that more people wanted to make their voices heard, to say ‘enough is enough’. The villagers are fed up with a rotten system that is not responding to their daily existential problems.

Despite the fact that the PM went on a rural tour of the country on the pretext of invitations in the context of Divali celebrations, the people did not succumb to his wooing. Nor did they fall prey to other senior ministers who unashamedly tried to buy votes through the offer of some kind of electoral bribes. The narrative that is emerging is one of hope, highlighting the average villager’s capacity of discernment and choice of right over wrong. The villagers want representatives who can deliver on transport, infrastructure, good roads, lighting, leisure, water, etc., and who truly mean business.

* But wouldn’t it be futile at this stage, four years away from the next elections, to draw facile conclusions from these results as it should be expected that a lot of water will flow under the bridge till 2024?

We must remember that the MSM-led government emanating from the 2019 ballot had been vaccinated with a number of turncoat politicians, considered as stalwarts, as well as some new faces who some voters trusted, thinking that the latter would live up to their discourses of doing politics differently. Even if a lot of water flows under the bridge, the people turned into lackeys will not attract an iota of sympathy from the voters in 2024.

The Pack and Blisters story with some Rs500 million rupees gone to waste with respirators still not working to date, the incompetence of the government around the MV Wakashio ecological crisis, lives lost in the Sir Gaëtan tug saga, people’s inability to access clean potable water 24/7, the weaknesses of the extended programme exposed by a recent World Bank study showing how the system continues to fail vast majority of our children, the island on EU’s black list, the conflict over CSG between the private sector and the state, let alone the thousands losing their jobs, Air Mauritius going down the drain, the failure of our institutions, absence of meritocracy – all these cannot and will not be forgotten.

This long list of negatives is etched in people’s minds and no matter how much effort will be put to try and repair damage done, it will not work. The street protests which we saw on August 29th is an indication of Mauritian citizens’ awakening and desire for new forms of governance. We are duty bound to keep the momentum going because, as I said in an earlier interview, PKJ and his team represent a major danger for Mauritian democracy. There can be no futility attached to the cumulation of frustration of the people expressed in several forms of discontent.

* Notwithstanding any favourable wind or not, we hear some opposition politicians acknowledging that the wait could be long for change to happen given that the ruling party has demonstrated it has the means and the personnel as well as support from some key institutions to wage a determined fight. How do you react to that?

What is long – 4 years? General elections are technically due in 2024 and given that there is a well-anchored culture of electoral democracy, the electoral cycle and peaceful transfer of power will be respected.

The Mauritian population may have no choice than putting up with all the miseries that it is currently enduring. But at the same time, it is important to realize that each day that passes by is testimony not only to growing discontent but to increased recognition that if we do not mobilize, and strategise, not only to oust PKJ and those turned into lapdogs of his, but to develop an implementable, alternative social contract, there may be nothing left to salvage.

The ‘determined fight’ you refer to is largely supported by lies, by instilling fears in people, by perverting our institutions, by privileging a handful to the detriment of the masses, in short by making a mockery of our democracy. The good thing is that the citizens of Mauritius increasingly repudiate all of this. They are choosing their own fight which is one for the truth, justice and inclusion, for making politics take a noble turn again. If this fight requires the people to engage in some form of civil disobedience, then so be it!

* But if there is indeed a “vent de changement” blowing all over the place, it could mean that the people are fed up with the way politics is being conducted locally; they might be looking forward to see change happening at that level as well as with regard to the faces leading the political parties, and not only those in power. What do you think?

The winds of change are indeed here, but we must remember that each local context and village has its own realities with some people able to appreciate and reward those who truly engage in serving at grassroots level. Take the case of Nitin Jeeha in St Hubert, for instance, not only has he come out first with more than 1000 votes but he has surpassed the candidate who came out 10th, hailing from the MSM, by some 800 votes if I am not mistaken – a real feat.

But looking beyond the numbers, what does this mean? It simply means that people want representatives who can assist them and who are truly concerned for their well-being. The kind of engagement that Nitin Jeeha showed during lockdown and the Wakashio ecological crisis is hard to find. The sense of service demonstrated has been rewarded.

Now compare this with one of the young women who has been elected in another village and was brought to national TV on the very next day to tell us that it’s not true to say that forces opposing the PKJ’s regime have come out victorious; she has been ridiculed by many and classified as one extra eulogizer of PKJ. Now such happenings certainly do not form part of the ‘vent de changement’ at all – instead this contributes to perpetuating the status quo. Du pareil au même.

It is true that many people are fed up with the way politics is being conducted locally, and may to some extent be even fed up with certain faces leading certain political parties but Mauritian citizens are intelligent. They are appreciative of the fact that the country has to inevitably go through a period of transition, with some of the faces that they may not very much wish to see but which are temporarily required for us to be able to move into something cleaner, stronger with a new vision responding effectively to the emerging challenges.

I am confident that a new crop of leaders with a strong sense of morality in public life will emerge very soon, with women and youth being at the forefront. Political pedagogy in this direction is ongoing and taking multiple forms.

* We have seen new faces coming forward to contest these elections — many of whom with a solid background and keen to make things happen at the grassroots level – and doing their campaign most probably at a fraction of what is spent during general elections. Curtailing the influence of money politics and ensuring the renewal of the political class should be possible, isn’t it? What’s coming in the way?

Money politics has unfortunately taken root in our democracy but is not as pronounced in the village elections. However, it is not impossible to curtail money politics and ensure the renewal of the political class. For this to happen, we have to get an effective legislation on the financing of political parties and we have to also revisit and enhance the powers of the Electoral Supervisory Commission. It is often the thirst for power and privileges which make people engage in unethical practices and when those who lead facilitate such practices, we have every reason to despair.

The amendment of section 38 (e) of the Local Government Act 2011 by the Anerood Jugnauth-led government in 2015, allowing for floor crossing is a clear example of how hard it is to obtain ‘clean politics’. Quite some trading has already started and will worsen over the next few days when competition over who controls the District Councils becomes more intense. Will money speak and to what extent is the burning question?

* On the other hand, what are your views on two major Bills that have come up for debate in Parliament: The Children’s Bill, and the one in relation to climate change? Do you think the implementation of the legal provisions in both bills would be achievable, practical and relevant to the current situation?

Let me come to The Climate Change Bill first since it is one which Peoples Voices Network (PVN), an NGO of which I am a founding member, pronounced itself on, even before debates started in parliament.

On 30th October, PVN assembled a multidisciplinary panel of experts to scrutinize and discuss the bill. Sadly, it is one which lacks ambition and foresight, let alone its incoherence and layers of bureaucracy with so many unnecessary institutions and committees. We are glad that many of the points that PVN made and compiled in an open letter to the Prime Minster and published in the local press, were echoed by some members in parliament.

The greatest disappointment is that the legitimate expectation by climate activists that the bill would address issues of climate justice has not been met, about which there isn’t one mention in the bill. Adaptation and mitigation are certainly central to addressing climate change but when one does not get a sense of how the development model itself will be attuned to climate change, there is reason to worry and to ask whether we are being responsible enough towards future generations.

The argument that there is a need for a delicate balancing act between the environment and development often means that a number of politicians and policy makers are unable to untrap themselves out of the logic of profit and to factor in the ecological question in the development equation.

We at PVN have also made a case for the introduction of ecological economics in our tertiary institutions but needless to say that this may remain largely ignored by the political class, resonating with the views of people such as Greta Thunberg and Richard Attenborough who denounce the hypocrisy of the political class on issues of climate change.

Also, hiding behind the fact that the ministry of environment had organized the assises nationales on the question of the environment and saw the participation of a multiplicity of stakeholders, does not help to address the lack of consultations with civil society as regards this important bill.

When people have insufficient knowledge of what is happening to our wetlands, for example, and at the same time are learning that permits are being given for further construction on certain wetland sites and thereby putting at stake our biodiversity, there is legitimate cause for concern.

When people do not know how many more trees are being cut down in the name of development and have insufficient information about reforestation plans if any, one cannot but ask whether the authorities are aware of the difference between a holistic and a piece-meal approach to climate change and development.

* What about the Children’s Bill?

I think it is commendable that the ministry has come up with this long-awaited bill. Putting the legal age for children’s marriage at 18 without derogation is, to my mind, a very good thing. A separate child friendly court is, of course, timely and pertinent. The failure to address concubinage amongst young people however is problematical and merits attention.

As pointed by Ariane Navarre Marie and rightly so, the bill could have been an opportunity to revisit the functioning of the correctional youth centre and rehabilitation youth centre. A study of these two centres constituted an important component of the ‘social fabric study’ that I led for the Mauritius Research Council in collaboration with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences of Mumbai, and I can tell you that many of the recommendations made then i.e. more than 20 years ago, have still not been implemented. Claiming to be a modern and inclusive jurisdiction and failing to address these aspects is a big lacuna.

I will be writing a full paper on the Children’s Bill very soon. For now suffice it to say that although the bill comes on the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic and the wakashio ecological crisis, leading to new forms of poverty impacting disproportionately on children, there is hardly any thought given to this important dimension. How on earth can we protect our children when they cannot even be fed due to sudden loss of jobs and income by their parents/guardians?

* One police officer lost her life in a control delivery operation in the south of the island. Despite the best efforts of the police and hefty prison sentences, there are daily media reports on drug seizures and arrests of traffickers, and it would seem there has also been a rise in synthetic drugs. Repressive measures have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. What’s your take on the drug situation in Mauritius?

The tragic death of this police officer raises many questions. Condolences to the family, but we cannot remain quiet. The tragic death of this police officer is one far too many, and this raises many questions: Is our police force equipped enough? Why did Adsu stay put despite the recommendations of the Lam Shang Leen commission to dismantle it?

The number of young people’s lives being destroyed due to drugs has reached alarming heights. The state is failing its children terribly on this count. I cannot even understand how such a huge problem affecting almost every family and our young ones has not caught the attention of the ombudsperson for children. Her latest report is silent on this issue and yet we know that drugs remain a major scourge for many families.

We are also left to wonder why the recommendations of the Lam Shang Leen Report have been left to gather dust. We need a dispassionate, honest debate with all stakeholders before it is too late. We run the risk of losing an entire generation.

* What else would be bothering you these days? Angus Road and ICAC/National assembly? Or is it the functioning of the MIC and the opacity surrounding the disbursements and conditions attached thereto…?

There is a lot bothering me these days, but most of all the opacity and the lack of accountability which pervade our entire system have become very worrying. Angus Road, the way ICAC functions and what is happening in the National Assembly are certainly bringing more shame on the entire nation at the international level. I have no doubt that we have become a laughing stock.

The lack of transparency regarding our money, funds taken from the central bank to finance all sorts of projects without us being able to get answers to our questions is very distressing. All of this is totally unacceptable and cannot go on. It is our collective responsibility to stop all this nonsense.


* Published in print edition on 27 November 2020

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