Is Abuse of Power and Wrongdoing the New Norm?

Is corruption the new norm in politics? The violently repressed anti corruption demonstrations in Moscow and other cities of Russia this week reminded the world that corruption remains a major problem in too many countries and that it is too often associated with the political class and the political-business nexus. After being impeached and dismissed from her post earlier this month on allegations of corruption, former South Korean President Park Geun-hye is now facing arrest from the Seoul District Court on charges of corruption and abuse of power.

The French presidential elections continue to be tainted by fresh allegations of wrongdoings by the embattled centre-right candidate Francois Fillon.  He is alleged to have received an interest-free, undeclared loan of Euros 50,000 from a billionaire businessman in 2013 which he failed to report to the State transparency watchdog for people in public office.  He is also accused of having received very expensive suits worth nearly Euros 50,000 as gifts paid for him in cash to a Parisian shop by an anonymous benefactor.  Francois Fillon and his wife have now been both charged with several offences over a bogus jobs scandal.

Despite all the flak, Francois Fillon pursues his presidential campaign unfazed unabashedly seeking the votes of citizens as if basic ethics and exemplary probity from being important considerations for voters. In a similar development last week, the French interior minister Bruno Le Roux had to resign after financial prosecutors opened a preliminary inquiry into allegations that he hired his daughters for summer jobs while a member of parliament.

Is it the heady intoxication of power and its trappings which obliterate any notion of right and wrong among some politicians and instill a mindset that public funds can be pillaged with impunity? Or is it the lack of public condemnation of such reprehensible acts? Mauritius is no better. Despite a holier than thou rhetoric, recent events have shown that the standard of ethics of the political class has plummeted to new depths. The change of government has provoked an unprecedented sauve qui peut as several MPs of opposition parties unashamedly jumped ship to join the government ranks with some obtaining ministerial posts.

In a vibrant democracy, we expect the persons holding high office to be imbued with a high moral code, showcase rigorous good governance and act with circumspection and discernment in all circumstances to avoid controversy of any kind. The country is regrettably facing an unprecedented situation whereby the Speaker of the National Assembly and the President are mired in controversies, quite distanced from the subtleties of Erskine May or the callings of the Head of State, which should have been avoided through better judgment. The nation legitimately expects amends.

The replies to the parliamentary questions this week have once again exposed other galling examples of wanton largesse with public funds such as the substantial hike of salary of a political appointee to more than Rs 320,000 per month akin to that of a minister in the teeth of the jolting fact that some 325,000 employees in the country earn up to Rs 15,000 per month and still find 49 years after Independence difficulties every month to make both ends meet.

We also leant from the recent Audit report that Rs 1.7 billion have been blithely spent in overtime costs in the Ministry of Health and that three university campuses, one of them located in Montagne Blanche, costing Rs 760 million in public funds are lying idle since last year as they require an additional investment of Rs 75 million to become operational.

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 The Imperative of Transparency

Systemic indecision and the underlying play of politics and covert lobbies to ring fence the metro project and the lucrative contracts for its implementation have repeatedly stalled it for years. Each delay has constantly hiked its costs by billions of rupees

When we talk of the metro, we necessarily speak of a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) commuting system. By whatever name successive governments decide to call it to proclaim paternity over the project, an MRT system must above all assure the safe, rapid and swift movement of the commuting multitude in a pleasant and environmentally friendly mode of transportation.

The economics of financing and investing in an MRT system such as the Singapore Light Rail Transit (LRT) system or the Delhi Metro are however totally different from those of conventional projects. The approach is to look at costs in a holistic manner. The costs also include the huge quantum of man hours lost daily in traffic congestion, commuting delays to reach work on time, the significantly higher combustion of fossil fuels, the adverse impact of carbon emissions and air pollution, the stress related medical costs, the risks of road accidents and the wear and tear of roads and vehicles, etc. When looking at the financing of its metro, Delhi took into consideration the hundreds of billions of US$ saved as a result of the massive reduction of such invisible environmental, social and indirect costs.

A metro must above all be a an ecologically sustainable alternative mass transport system which significantly reduces fossil fuel costs, carbon emissions, air pollution, commuting time, delays, traffic congestion, road accidents as well as providing a safe, enjoyable, convivial and rapid mass commuting system. It is therefore important for modern Mauritius to have a green and affordable mass transport system which cuts commuting time and renders traffic more fluid. We must therefore make sure that the Metro Express project has been aptly conceptualised to meet these cardinal objectives to assure an enhanced commuting experience compatible with the exigencies of modern Mauritius. Going forward, the country must also envisage in the light of feasibility studies future viable extension of the metro network to, for example, the airport.

The metro project has basically been talked about in Mauritius for some two decades. Systemic indecision and the underlying play of politics and covert lobbies to ring fence the project and the lucrative contracts for its implementation have repeatedly stalled it for years. Each delay has constantly hiked its costs by billions of rupees to the detriment of the national Exchequer.

Sharing of information

However, so far very little information has filtered on the current Metro project pursuant to the decision to go ahead with it. The video simulation of the metro project presently shown on TV gives the impression of a chugging train rather than a rapid mass commuting system carrying tens of thousands of passengers daily. From information provided by government this week in reply to a parliamentary question, the Metro Express is forecast to cost Rs 17.7 billion, have a ridership of some 80,000 commuters daily each way, have a speed of 40-50 km per hour and an estimated travel time of 43 minutes if the train stops at each of the 19 stations and less on express services linking the main terminals. The metro will also apply the same fares as the prevailing bus fares and no fiscal measures will be imposed by government to discourage car ridership. More than half of the estimated metro project cost will be financed by US $ 275 million from the generous Indian grant equal to Rs 9.9 billion (out the total grant of US$ 343 million or Rs 12.7 billion). Various financing options are available to government including a line of credit from the government of India to fund the remaining project costs. So far so good.

In essence, the scant information about such an important and costly national project has so far trickled in a very piecemeal mode. The basic details provided so far are too little. The project cannot be shrouded in opacity. It has, above all, to be a model of transparency and accountability. This is the more so as, with the exit of the PMSD, the present government joined by various defections from opposition parties is materially different from the alliance which was voted by the people at the December 2014 general elections. It does not really have the mandate and legitimacy conferred solely by the people through the acid test of general elections.

It therefore follows that the key elements of the Metro Express project must be made public and available to the people in a comprehensive document and posted on the government website so as to enable the people to ascertain that the project has been aptly conceptualized to meet all the key environmental, economic, social and national objectives detailed above. The project must be accountable on all counts.

The metro project must thus be able to answer a host of key questions such as the comfort level of passengers in the metro compartments, the configuration of seats and standing area, the leg space, the security measures envisaged and details about its environment friendly dimension. Furthermore, how would the absence of a congestion charge (with appropriate exceptions) applicable in designated areas of the main thoroughfare to Port Louis or Ebene, reduce congestion on roads, carbon emissions, air pollution and assure a daily critical mass of commuters on the metro to assure its viability? Congestion charges are applicable in both Singapore and London for these reasons. There must therefore be a transparent sharing of information on key aspects of the metro project. The people must also be fully apprised of the project’s progress through regular progress reports and updates on all developments. It is therefore vital that there is a national understanding and consensus on the model of MRT being implemented as we cannot afford to have a second shot at it.

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 Inspiring icon

In a week when South Africa and the democratic world mourned the passing away of Ahmed Kathrada, an icon of the anti-apartheid movement and a tireless combatant of democratic values and the rights of the common man, we are reminded once again that politics is above all a noble calling anchored on uncompromising principles and ideals, a selfless sense of service to the people, a high standard of ethics and the pursuit of a more equal, inclusive and better socio-economic order for all.

Let his uplifting narrative inspire and trigger a clamour for a paradigm shift in the political ethics of the country to the primeval values and ideals of the icons of our own pre-Independence political history.

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