Furthering Public Interest

At the time of a change of government after general elections, there are certain important matters of national public interest which sometimes remain in limbo and need to be swiftly addressed to further public interest and the public good.

Fairer banking

The unfinished business of streamlining and significantly reducing the exorbitant and excessive bank charges and fees charged by commercial banks must be speedily addressed. The iniquitous and taxing state of charges and fees applicable in the banking sector has been comprehensively mapped out in the report of the task force on Unfair Terms and Conditions in banking contracts set up by the Bank of Mauritius (BOM) entitled ‘Banking Your Future: Towards a Fair & Inclusive Banking Sector’.

Against the backdrop of handsome and growing profits by the main banks, this incisive and measured report which makes cogent recommendations for a fairer and transparent way forward as regards fees and charges and simplified contractual terms and documentation in the banking sector is a sterling example of what able young Mauritians with pluri-disciplinary skills can under the right guidance produce to further the public good and interest.

In the wake of the report, a survey was carried out among the public for a feedback on the recommendations of the report by the Bank of Mauritius. Its results should provide a public mandate and the required authority to the Bank of Mauritius for overhauling in line with what is the norm in the banking sector in advanced countries like the UK, the present archaic system to significantly lighten the burden of banking charges and fees borne by economic operators, entrepreneurs and the larger banking public so as to provide a more business friendly impetus to stimulating growth.

As proposed in the report, Government should in this context also empower the Bank of Mauritius to regulate interest rate spreads against a background of falling and historically low gross domestic savings and low or negative net savings rate as well as low investment. This important unfinished business must be urgently completed by the Bank of Mauritius, in the public interest.

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Green Mass Transit System

The government has stated that the Light Rail Transit (LRT) project is not a priority for the moment. However, it is important that the LRT as a system of mass transit of commuters be dispassionately examined from the point of view of the long term public interest and the cardinal objective of making cogent national choices to reduce the carbon footprint of the country, thus contributing in our own way to the larger imperative of urgently stemming the dire impact of carbon emissions on global warming and climate change on Earth.

All mega cities or expressways having a high density of commuters such as in the Curepipe-Port Louis commuting corridor which are crippled by growing road congestion, air pollution and transit delays, etc., look for an ecologically sustainable alternative mass transport system capable of providing multiple benefits such as a reduction in air pollution, traffic congestion, commuting time, road accidents and fossil fuel costs.

Mauritius has been examining such a greener mass transport system for more than a decade. Those of us who had to daily slalom our way to and fro to work in Port Louis looked forward to commuting in a rapid transit train in the quietude, conviviality and kinship of daily commuters. This was not to be. Every year lost in validating and implementing such a project cost billions of Rupees in project costs.

The economics of constructing a city Metro such as the Delhi Metro or a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system as in Singapore or a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system in Mauritius are thus totally different from those of conventional projects. Delhi is the eighth most populated metropolis in the world and has been one of the latest cities to invest in a Metro as from 1998 in an ongoing extension of the metro network. When examining the project and its financing, Delhi considered the billions of US$ saved in terms of reduced air and other pollution, millions of man hours lost daily in traffic congestion, fuel savings, time saved by commuters daily, medical costs related to stress, the wear and tear of vehicles or the reduction in road accidents, etc. All these invisible or indirect costs are real economic and social costs. The Delhi Metro is the thirteenth largest metro system with a length of 193 kilometres serving 141 stations, 38 of which are underground.

Every commuter who chooses the Delhi Metro over a car or a bus contributes in reducing the emission of roughly 100 mg of carbon dioxide for every trip of 10 kilometres. More than 700 million people commute by metro in Delhi every year thus contributing directly towards a more eco friendly environment and a greener footprint. In operation since 2002 the Delhi Metro has been extended to its present network covering Delhi and the larger Delhi regions such as Noida or Gurgaon.

The Delhi Metro has thus helped remove 120,000 vehicles from city roads daily, thus significantly reducing congestion and has cut fuel consumption by 106,000 tonnes annually, thus positively contributing towards decreasing pollution and green house gas emissions by some 630,000 tonnes annually.

It has also been certified by the United Nations as the first metro system in the world which has earned and is earning carbon credits through the induction of green technologies for reducing emission of harmful gases and thus curbing global warming. One carbon credit is equal to one tonne of carbon dioxide or carbon dioxide equivalent gases. It can be sold on the international market trading in carbon credits.

Eco-friendly commuting

In Mauritius, the present system of commuting by cars or in a polluting fleet of public transport buses and the costly investments in building and maintaining additional lanes on the highway causing adverse environmental fall outs is not ecologically sustainable. There is a necessity for a greener mode of mass commuting which would reduce atmospheric pollution, road congestion, the hundreds of thousands of man hours lost annually on congested roads and the enhanced bill of fossil fuel used. The basic idea is to give, as is the case in major cities or urban agglomerations in the world such as in London, Paris, New York, Singapore or Barcelona, a pleasant, convivial, eco-friendly, rapid, safe and efficient mode of public transport to the hundred of thousands of people who commute to work every day on the main commuting Curepipe-Port Louis corridor.

A well set up and organized LRT has the added advantage of enabling commuters to use the commuting time, to read, check their mail, prepare their work, meet and talk to fellow commuters, distanced from the hassle of driving and finding a parking. A green mass transit system will also de-clutter our roads and render them more fluid, thus providing an added impetus to our economic sectors and enable a swifter movement of goods in our export oriented economy. There are thus significant incremental benefits to a number of economic agents: government, private transporters, passengers, tourism operators, economic actors and to the general public demand for a greener form of public transport. A sustainable Mauritius requires that we introduce a greener mass transport system to reduce our carbon footprint.

However, as is the case in London or Singapore, the essential corollary of any LRT is for commuters and in particular car users to develop a new mindset of using the greener LRT for commuting to work. To this end, government may envisage, if need be, the introduction of a congestion charge applicable in designated areas with appropriate exemptions, so that more car owners use the LRT. Singapore has an innovative Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) program which automatically debits a cash card inserted in an inbuilt on board unit (OBU) fixed permanently on all vehicles and powered by the vehicle battery. When the vehicle passes through an ERP gantry, the cash balance after the ERP charge deduction is shown on the OBU.

Such a system is necessary if circumstances warrant a policy of discouraging people from using their cars or other vehicles to commute. Conscious that with a limited land area equivalent to about a third of Mauritius, it needs to strictly arbiter the allocation of limited land resources, Singapore has through a regulated system based on a Certificate of Entitlement limited the number of vehicles on its roads and highways. Thus, according to statistics available in 2010, Singapore had 149 vehicles per 1000 inhabitants against 175 for Mauritius. There are no such restrictions in Mauritius as the number of vehicles continues to grow unabated. Thus, the fleet of vehicles has increased by some 25,000 to reach more than 469,000 in 2014 which further compounds the ills associated with congested roads, exacerbates parking constraints and deteriorates our carbon footprint.

In the past, Mauritius has attempted to reduce congestion by decentralizing both public and private sector offices and activities especially in the services sector away from Port Louis. However, the construction of the Ebene hub on the main commuting highway to Port Louis has not resolved the problem now compounded by problems relating to the parking of cars in both Port Louis and Ebene. The proposed LRT system is an overground rail network of some 25 km serving about 13 stations (including Ebene) from Curepipe to Port Louis. It is to be built and operated on a Public Private Partnership (PPP) scheme with air conditioned carriages, fares equal to prevailing bus fares as well as a park and ride system set up in parallel to woo car users and commuters travelling by bus.

Going into the future, it is important for a modern Mauritius to have a green mass transit system. To this end, the LRT project should, taking into account the amount of work already put on the project under the supervision of recognized consultants, be re-validated especially in respect of its green footprint and carbon credit earning capacity and if need be adjusted for earliest implementation once circumstances warrant it.

The Indian government has already pledged a soft credit line of US$600 million for the LRT project. In such an eventuality, it would be important in the interest of transparency towards the public for government to detail the project, the manner the PPP scheme will operate, the fares applicable, its financing and the eventual cession of the LRT assets to the State.

Bolder steps

Government is the ultimate guardian of public interest. A change of government especially with such an emphatic endorsement and mandate by the people is also an opportunity to bring about wherever necessary determinant systemic changes to assiduously further the public interest. Shouldn’t appropriate legislation be enacted to enshrine the principle of the supremacy of the public interest in all circumstances and more particularly in the case of leonine contracts crafted and cemented to flout and short-change the public interest? The massive people’s mandate also enables the government to take other bold steps in respect of robustly addressing the many shortcomings and inequalities of the prevailing economic and social order in the country through the required reforms to steadfastly promote the public interest in an inclusive manner.

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The Carnage at Charlie Hebdo

All those who value freedom are outraged at the calculated and coolly executed carnage at the headquarters of the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, in Paris last week, in the name of religion. The brutal murder of 12 persons including the well-known cartoonists Cabu, Wolinski, Charb and Tignous was ordered because the freedom they allowed themselves as satirical cartoonists and citizens of France where freedom of expression is sacrosanct, were decreed irreverent and blasphemous by covert external mentors who brainwashed, handled and directed their assassins.

France is a lay republic. This fundamental aspect of France is enshrined in a 1905 law on the separation of religions and the State. The lay nature of France allows writers, journalists or cartoonists to satirise politicians, public figures and religions subject to the laws of defamation in force. In the country which bequeathed the democratic values of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité of the French Revolution, freedom of speech is therefore an inviolable, absolute and robustly protected right.

Pursuing their wanton killing spree, the terrorists callously executed a Muslim policeman lying wounded on the pavement, targeted and murdered Jewish shoppers at a Kosher supermarket which raised the death toll after three days of bloodshed to 17 persons. The world expressed indignant and unequivocal condemnation of the barbaric attacks. Hamas and the International Union of Muslim Scholars condemned the attacks adding that ‘any differences of opinion are no justification for killing innocents’.

What better response to intolerance, terrorism and the odious killings than the spontaneous worldwide solidarity in support of freedom and ‘Charlie’ which became an instant symbol of freedom of expression, when 40 world leaders and some 3.8 million people participated in unison in a historic Unity March on Sunday 11 January in Paris and across France. In the same spirit, the 3 million copies of the special edition of Charlie Hebdo produced by the ‘survivors’ this week (when the magazine normally publishes some 60,000 copies every week) were sold out, leading to the printing and sale of 2 million additional copies.

For the first time since 1918, the Members of the French National Assembly sung ‘La Marseillaise’ after observing a moment of silence to honour the terror victims. It is a high moment of unity, patriotism and determination to combat the scourge of terrorism whilst reaffirming the potent democratic values of France. The pencil is mightier than Kalashnikovs.

Joining forces

The tragic events in Paris raise various fundamentals questions. The unending cycle of violent terrorist attacks perpetuated by their own radicalised citizens whose parents had emigrated owing to persecution in their home countries or to seek a better future is untenable and puts continuous stress on social harmony in the plural societies in European countries or the US. It creates a fertile ground for mistrust and xenophobia to take root. In a statement to the British Parliament this week, the head of Europol has estimated that up to 5,000 European nationals have joined the jihadists in the Middle East and have the potential to perpetuate attacks similar to those in Paris.

This unhealthy situation fuels as presently in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe the debate on immigration laws and integration especially by right wing organisations in Europe such as Le Front National or Pegida. However, French and European leaders have been prompt in thwarting any knee-jerk reaction by quashing any intent of equating terrorism with Muslims. With a population of some 4.7 million, the Muslim population in France is the largest in Europe followed by that in Germany and the United Kingdom. The signs and alarm bells of right wing extremism in Europe targeting the Muslim community are more and more evident.

In order to prevent a backlash and the situation from getting out of hand, the onus is squarely on the Muslim communities in Europe, in the West and on Muslim countries as well as their religious leaders to take a vocal public stand against such terrorist acts and the rhetoric underpinning such horrid attacks as well as to join forces with their host country to police and vigorously combat terrorism. It is equally important that the sources of angst, rancour and sense of humiliation which provide a fertile ground for radicalisation such as the urgent establishment of the long delayed Palestinian State be urgently resolved and defused. Not to do so is to let the radical groups bent on stoking and conjuring conflict between the open West and the larger tolerant Muslim world, have a field day.

In a globalized world marked by continuous cultural osmosis, the promotion of peace and harmony among nations and plurality, there is no place for narrow-minded obscurantism. Isn’t it a truism to say that the religion of  God who made us all which is based on peace, love, harmony and oneness is quite different from the religion of religious establishments?

 

* Published in print edition on 16 January  2015

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