The task ahead is formidable. A host of systemic reforms and corrective policies have to be adopted. The future can only be built on the basis of a new national ethos of sharing and solidarity with everyone on board
47 years after independence, we have to admit that there are many things amiss in our country which it is high time to set right. Through lack of rigour, the absence of robust bulwarks, highhandedness and collusion and collective indifference, we have allowed license to hold sway and too many of the values and ideals Independence was fought on to be frittered away.
The distressing set of events which have jolted the nation since last month bear testimony to the appalling depths governance has plummeted to. The uncovering of hundreds of millions of stashed cash, the allegations of similar amounts paid as commissions in tax havens, the absence of transparency in the allocation of highly profitable State contracts or scarce State lands is a scathing indictment of systemic failures in governance which allowed those running the government and those in high office who were trusted to be the custodians of public interest to repeatedly flout it and so callously breach the people’s trust.
These events have tainted the image and standing of Mauritius. Is the present system of covert,opaque and unaccounted for donations to political parties not a form of bribery? It is therefore imperative that these Augean stables are cleaned without any highhandedness or arbitrariness, respectful of the laws and the sacrosanct principle of the separation of powers especially among the Legislative, Executive and the Judiciary enshrined in our Constitution and the foundations of our democracy. It follows that the government must in parallel set by example the highest norms of probity and good governance in the management of the affairs of the State as unalienable benchmarks for the future.
Government action must, however, remain focused on the many urgent issues and socio-economic priorities of the country that must be addressed and resolved at the earliest. These relate inter alia to inclusive growth, creation of employment, equal opportunities, transparent and merit based recruitment policy in public and private sectors, the ironing out of inequalities, a fair sharing of the fruits of prosperity, improved access to land and capital, etc. The list of must-do actions and corrective policies required seems endless. Owing to prolonged indecisiveness over the past years, there is a tremendous backlog of socio-economic issues which must also be urgently addressed by government.
The government will be gauged on the manner it overhauls the economy to set it on track on a path of robust growth as well as the way it addresses and resolves all these burning issues and the diverse social challenges faced by the country. It is expected that the policy framework enunciated and the measures to be announced in the Budget Speech on 23 March will provide a welcome impetus to growth and employment as well as create the enabling environment for business confidence and entrepreneurship. If entrepreneurship is to flourish, it is important that the necessary land and other structural reforms are carried out to enable entrepreneurs to have, whenever their projects and business plans warrant it, the necessary access to land and capital.
Unity through equality
It is quite evident that in spite of the marked improvement in standards of living in the country since Independence, the resulting prosperity has been very unequally shared. There are as a consequence stark inequalities in our society marked by wide disparities and inequalities in terms of incomes, standards of living and quality of life. As reported in the context of the tripartite, an eye opening nearly half of the employees of the private sector which employs more than three times the number of people employed in the public sector earned up to Rs 10,000 per month in 2014. Households with such levels of earnings find difficulties in making both ends meet or have a dignified standard of living in a context of a constant erosion of their purchasing power. It is disconcerting that against such an abject situation, representatives of the employers are arguing for changes in the labour laws won through hard struggle.
The gap between the rich and those on the lower rungs of the income scale has significantly widened. The prosperity of the country and its growing wealth cannot stem from a subset of low paid employees within its work force across the different pillars of the economy. Such a model of development and unequal sharing of the fruits of prosperity is neither sustainable nor acceptable. It is a recipe for social fracture with all the attendant angst and friction. It is a far cry from the pledges made to the people of a more equal and inclusive society during the fight for our freedom. The ironing out of such glaring inequalities must be a priority which needs to be addressed in a holistic and substantive manner.
The fundamental principle must be to ensure that the fruits of collective hard work are fairly shared. The proposal to provide 35% shareholding to planters and workers in the sugar cane industry is an effective method of bridging inequalities provided this shareholding is only held in the more viable and remunerative activities of the sugar cane industry cluster such as electricity producing power plants or distilleries, etc., using the by-products of the sugar-cane as feedstock. Shouldn’t a similar approach be introduced in the Tourism sector through say a share bonus scheme provided to employees?
It is an accepted fact that one of the key attractions of Mauritius as a tourist destination is the exceptional aura of hospitality and service provided by the hotel staff and personnel which has engendered a robust loyalty among tourists to the Mauritian destination. Such a sea change in policy would motivate the hotel staff further by giving them a sense of ownership and encourage them to continue to excel in the quality of service provided to tourists and hotel residents, thereby assuring through this potent competitive advantage a secure future for the sector.
If we are to build a more just and equal society, it is equally important to institute the safety net of a minimum wage policy to enable the vulnerable sections of the population to live with dignity and essential comfort in a context of constantly rising prices. Poverty eradication is another priority. However, it is important to ensure that all policies of assistance to the poor must avoid making them dependent on handouts but instead help and empower them to stand on their own feet and assure their future. The State must help those who want to help themselves instead of creating a demeaning culture of dependence on handouts.
In the context of the budget measures, special thought and consideration must be given to the conditions of livelihoods of the country’s retired senior citizens. In a context where the elderly senior citizens cannot, owing to their age, obtain health insurance cover, they are compelled to be their own health insurers and whenever required foot the bill of the excessively high cost of healthcare and when necessary, surgery.
The elderly are more prone to be ill and incur medical expenses. Instead of tax allowances to deduct their medical insurance premium which they are unable to subscribe to owing to their age, retired senior citizens should be allowed a higher level of exemption and be allowed to deduct all their medical expenses financed from their savings.
Building on our strengths
The torrential rains which have afflicted Mauritius over the recent months have once again highlighted the vulnerability of vegetable growers and the consumers to the vagaries of the weather. The adverse effects of climate change manifested by extreme weather conditions such as prolonged drought, thunderstorms or torrential rains and flash floods are already affecting us. Such fluctuations in climatic conditions adversely affect the supply and prices of vegetables and agricultural produce.
The vegetable growers in the country are one of the most enterprising economic actors of Mauritius. They have diligently assured the supply of fresh vegetables and other agricultural produce to the market for generations, year in year out in spite of the frequent setbacks and losses incurred due to inclement weather. They have also experimented and successfully grown a host of new vegetables unknown a generation ago such as red cabbage or broccoli. Is it not high time to protect the production of all the vegetable growers and the diverse vegetables grown and consumed in Mauritius against the damage caused by the vagaries of the weather, through the setting up of clusters of production in green houses located in the vegetable growing areas of the country? Incentives must be provided as green houses are expensive.
In parallel, refrigerated storage close to green house production clusters as well as direct marketing facilities which would help bypass intermediaries must be provided to enable the growers to derive maximum benefit from their hard work and the sale of their agricultural produce whilst at the same time assuring a constant supply of vegetables and agricultural produce at reasonable prices on the market. Such a structured production, storage and marketing set-up would also provide sales outlets for the vegetable growers to the local vegetable canning industry and enable this potent entrepreneurial class to contribute even more to national growth and development.
The employment of the young, in particular the qualified young is a vital priority. We cannot continue to produce some 6,000 graduates every year including, doctors and engineers without planning and creating the conditions for their gainful employment. The priority is to address the obvious mismatch between the mixed bag of courses being offered by the Tertiary sector to the young keen on acquiring tertiary education at great expense and sacrifice and the skills requirement of the market place.
It is therefore vital that the quality and international standing of all the courses being offered in the Tertiary sector and other training institutions be rigorously audited and validated or debarred to ensure that they adequately match the skills requirements of the market place and assure a seamless entry in the workplace through a structured and interactive system of placements with the potential employing firms in the market place. If the country is to realize its most ambitious objectives, it is vital that the qualified young and their pluri-disciplinary skills be mobilized for this national venture.
It is clear that the task ahead is formidable. A host of systemic reforms and corrective policies have to be adopted. The future can only be built on the basis of a new national ethos of sharing and solidarity with everyone on board and committed to realizing our loftiest national ambitions through our collective hard work for the benefit of all and in the confidence of a fairer and inclusive sharing of the resultant fruits of economic growth and national prosperity.
This is the only sustainable model for singular success and a bright future for the country.
* Published in print edition on 19 March 2015