The PM’s Tryst with History

Prime Minister (PM) Sir Anerood Jugnauth’s (SAJ) comforting statement on the occasion of his 85th birthday celebrations recently, that he intends to establish and entrench the overriding principles of meritocracy, competence, transparency of process and equal opportunities in the country (irrespective of people’s personal democratic political allegiances) in respect of all recruitments, appointments and promotions is a welcome paradigm shift from the rooted favouritism and malpractices of the past.

His intent and argumentation was pedagogical and probably also addressed to his own wayward troops to shepherd good governance generally and in respect of all appointments back on track. SAJ has the authority and stature to ensure that these fundamental principles of good governance are rigorously implemented in both the public and private sectors to enable Mauritius to harness its best talents and innovative brains to realise our highest ambitions as a nation.

SAJ thus has a tryst with history and the unique opportunity, as he stewards the government in his last mandate as PM, to design and bequeath a robust system of good governance with appropriate checks and balances and a code of ethics applicable to all those in positions of responsibility, for the future.

What better legacy for SAJ to leave for posterity than to root the management of the affairs of the country firmly on exemplary good governance, enshrine the principle of meritocracy in the policy directive of recruitment and promotion in the country and translate the vision of an equal, more prosperous and inclusive society based on an equitable sharing of the proceeds of growing wealth, into reality.

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Smart cities or cash cows?

Are smart cities the panacea to resolve the chronic problems of inclusive growth, employment, inequality, equitable sharing or the existential aspirations of the people and in particular the young?

There seems to be some confusion about the concept and the indiscriminate use of the smart city label to the diverse projects being promoted including those by the various land rich sugar cane based groups. How can the ‘smart cities’ projects whose residential component includes the offer of very often acquiring second homes in most probably gated enclaves (emulating a decried South African model) at the high end of the property market or foreign real estate developers targeting wealthy expats meet the work aspirations of the unemployed or the qualified young in fields other than the construction, real estate or housekeeping businesses?

In any case, such projects whose financial gearing depends primarily on regular sales of the pricey residential part of the project in currently difficult market conditions take time to gather momentum and be completed. Furthermore, the period of employment of most of the employed is limited to the finite timeline till the completion of the project. In essence, the specious notion of smart cities envisaged which now benefits from official assent enables the various landed promoters to further optimize revenue from their substantial land assets. It does not per se respond to the aspirations and long term goals of mainstream Mauritius and that of its youth.

They, however, potentially represent cash cows in terms of state revenue and handsome profits for the promoters. As they constitute a core element of State policy, it follows that there should be disclosure and transparency as regards the 7000 arpents of land to be used as well as the details and other material aspects of the 13 mega projects. In implementing its policy framework, government must remain a fair arbiter of very often conflicting interests in the national venture of achieving higher growth levels, inclusive sharing of prosperity, reduction of inequalities and improved standards of living for all. Bearing in mind the current dire context, is revenue the overriding factor of arbitrage?

What the unemployed aspires for is the possibility of a permanent job preferably in the viable services or manufacturing sectors capable of assuring his future, in line with his qualifications and skills so as to be able to meet his basic needs, subsequently invest in a home and start a family. These are the standard aspirations of every individual. The operational and trade facilitation measures as well as the relevant ‘coaching’ in favour of the SMEs will enable them to generate more employment and contribute further to growth. To put it simply, it is therefore important that the government keeps track of these ground realities and the real capacities of the various identified poles of development to adequately meet the vision of a more equal and sharing society and the national objectives of reducing unemployment, achieving a higher growth rate going forward as well as generate inclusive development.

The smart city of Songdo, South Korea, is connected by an underground system of pipes and garbage directly sucked from homes is automatically processed. However, it is important to sound a word of caution. Far from such a futuristic model, our smart cities must primarily respond to our specific urban needs in terms of housing, work parks, health, schooling, utilities, waste management, eco-friendly transportation and the optimum usage of green renewable energy such as solar.

Experts aver that it is pointless to bristle our smart cities with a grid of sensors monitoring us and encroaching on our privacy space, with outsourcing companies or impersonal administrators silently mining and analysing data through obtuse algorithms to decide on our behalf. Such an approach opens the risk of Big Brother and personal information being used without the knowledge or consent of citizens.

It must be remembered that technology evolves faster than cities. Any system installed today at great cost will be obsolete in two years. Experts agree that instead of locking people into a top-down mandatory system, technology should be left open and citizens given control over their own data. Free Wi-Fi is an essential people friendly tech which should be available in smart cities. Smart phones and apps have revolutionized and facilitated our lives for payment of bills, GPS navigation or download of useful apps, etc. The engine of a smart city will be smart people. This means some form of devolution to allow individual cities and their inhabitants to make their own choices and decisions.

In line with a more inclusive vision of our society, it is important that the concept of a smart city also squarely responds to the needs of mainstream Mauritius who are desperate to gain access to affordable land or homes.

We know that all our towns and villages have been badly planned. Our smart cities can start significantly improving our style of living. They must therefore respond to what people want namely a mix of affordable residential land or houses in a well planned green environment which is pedestrian or having cycling lanes with schools, health, recreational and other essential services and basic commercial outlets with possibly a principally tech based services park providing an employment hub; the whole city making a maximum use of green renewable energy such as solar or biogas through viable eco-friendly technology using domestic waste, etc.

It is equally important that our cities include a mix of Mauritians from different walks of life and not be an enclave of highly priced houses or residential plots accessible only to the very wealthy.

The choice of a common vision

Access to affordable land for residential purposes and the rising cost of land across the country fuelled by residential projects promoted primarily by large land owners in almost every part of the country is a major constraint for the young and large sections of the population. It is one of the major vectors of inequality in the country. Similarly, the government as well as entrepreneurs wishing to develop projects in the diverse new pillars of the economy are constrained owing to access to land.

In the light of the vast concentration of land assets, it is therefore imperative that this core problem is urgently resolved once and for all, as has been the case elsewhere, through a substantive land reform policy and the setting up of a sizeable land bank for current and future national needs.

In the context of low savings rate due to low returns, there would be merit in examining other more remunerative instruments of investment for the multitude of savers. In view of the substantial capital requirements of the major projects identified, why not set up a national investment fund managed professionally by fund and asset managers to enable investment, subject to the necessary due diligence and project evaluation exercises, in the smart cities projects together with the promoters and in other potentially remunerative projects in, for example, the harbour or the next generation of Cyber cities initiated in the country? This could provide an alternative option of investment for savers. The fund could also invest in a portfolio of ventures and investment instruments both locally and abroad.

Mauritius is indeed at a crossroads. As in the case for the Prime Minister, the choice is simple. A paradigm shift from the failings of the past to set Mauritius on a new course which rallies all the people around a common vision of an equitable and inclusive Mauritius shared and driven by everyone bent on realizing the needs and aspirations of one and all is our only sustainable way forward as a nation.

 

* Published in print edition on 3 April  2015

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