Has government lost the plot?

Come what may, the country must retain absolute ownership over its development choices and future

Has the all-consuming idée fixe about ‘smart cities’ and the hype about the imminence of a scripted economic miracle cut government from the ground realities of the country, its stark inequalities and the enduring hardships faced by the common man? Last week, torrential rains and the resulting floods wreaked havoc in Mauritius and caused distress to the people. It acted as a wakeup call from the government fixation about ‘smart cities’.

The floods inundated people’s houses in various localities in the North and other areas causing devastation and material damage to their chattels and furniture, electrical appliances and other personal belongings. All key activities in the country were disrupted. Schools and colleges were kept shut for most of last week. On government advice, even economic activities were stopped and government offices closed early. This is hardly the image of a regional economic tiger we wish to project.

The startling truth dawned on Mauritius that despite nature’s clear warning signs and the heavy toll of casualties caused by the 2013 flash floods, the crying necessity of urgently addressing the roots causes of flooding in the country in a comprehensive and holistic manner had not as yet been considered a national priority. This serious national issue was basically still largely left in abeyance in spite of the new government having been in power for more than a year.

We must remember that climate change has materially affected the nature of natural calamities afflicting Mauritius over the last decades. The last cyclone which caused damages in mainland Mauritius was Dina in January 2002, 14 years ago. Torrential rains, flash floods, thunderstorms and drought seem to have become more recurrent in recent years. Furthermore, the systemic problem of drainage and evacuation of water especially in areas which are either prone to risks of water logging and flooding such as near river banks or low lying basins has been exacerbated by non compliance with building norms, over-construction, road infrastructure developments and wanton pollution which impede the natural flow of water, thus causing more potent floods.

These core problems remain to a large extent unattended and must therefore be urgently resolved not by makeshift measures but through a holistic and lasting solution with the expert advice of consultants specialised in this field. It is time for government to get its priorities right, the more so as preliminary cost estimates of Rs 501 million for the urgent works on drains required to be carried are a far cry from the more than Rs 100 billion earmarked for investment in ‘smart cities’ made up principally of high end real estate developments, business parks or golf courses.

The current post ‘disaster management’ approach to the problem after the damage is done and of then pompously blowing one’s own trumpet about it can only build angst and ire among the hapless victims in the country who endured traumatic hardships during the torrential rains. This is the time for decisive and cogent actions under the tight stewardship of the Minister of Public Infrastructure rather than through another inept inter-ministerial Committee chaired by the ubiquitous Vice-Prime Minister Showkutally Soodhun who is mired in controversy regarding medical bills allegedly owed to the Apollo-Bramwell clinic, which is since last year under the accountable charge of the State through the National Insurance Company Ltd.

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The Merits of Excellence

Earlier this month, there was the announcement of the 2015 laureates. This is a well-choreographed annual ritual. As every year, the crop of laureates showcases a cross-section of the best young students of the year from diverse walks of life bonded by a common sense of dedication and the pursuit of excellence during their studies. For a whole week, the merits of excellence highly valued by plural Mauritius as well as the laureates’ individual pathways to success were highlighted and extolled. We must remember that as every year, there are equally brilliant students ranked just behind the laureates who also had exceptional academic careers but just fell short to make the cut to become laureates.

All these students and the thousands of others with excellent results represent a huge potential for the country which rational logic would dictate we must necessarily harness, once they complete their tertiary education, to man the best jobs in both the public and private sectors to help the country achieve its most ambitious goals. Most students of every generation aspire, given the choice, to come back after their studies to contribute in their specific fields to the advancement of the country. Regrettably when it comes to actually employing them for the common good, the policy of recruitment at various echelons seems to be at variance with the ethos of promoting excellence. It appears to do the exact opposite and basically shies away from a rigorously merit-based and transparent process.

Too often, political interference, lobbies of every kind and favouritism have frustrated the legitimate aspirations and career path of the more deserving.

Whilst most of the brightest post independence graduates and professionals came back to Mauritius and have contributed to the national building efforts, this is progressively much less the case now. After a mere 47 years after independence a growing number of young Mauritians are, owing to the inherent flaws in the domestic recruitment process, opting to seek and pursue a professionally more rewarding career abroad. The most endowed and talented Mauritians are out in the world to excel in their respective fields of interest. Some of them are already making a name for themselves abroad.

On the social front more and more parents are finding themselves separated from their children and grandchildren. The government’s call for Mauritians to come back to serve the country will only succeed if transparency and merit become the key drivers of recruitment in both the public and the private sectors.

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Mega projects: Not at any cost

Mauritius has always been particular about the sources of foreign direct investment in the country. We have also been very guarded and reluctant about ceding the ownership of land and other assets in the country to foreigners. Voices were raised when privatisation à la Thatcher threatened to take hold. France Telecom (now Orange S.A.) thus became a majority shareholder of Mauritius Telecom after acquiring 40% of the shares in 2000.

Everybody knows that the sale of State assets or an IRS villa or as is the case in Seychelles an island or a family heirloom is a one-off transaction. Once sold, the ownership and benefits of the sold asset pass on to the buyer. When oil prices were booming in recent years, Gulf and Qatari interests have been on a buying spree gobbling European football clubs or prime real estate and commercial assets such as the Chelsea Barracks or Harrods.

The announcement by the ubiquitous Showkutally Soodhun that the Heritage City project designed to harbour the key government offices at Highlands will benefit from a Saudi financing of Rs 18 billion is therefore quite startling. No funding is without strings. What are the strings attached to this financing? Is this the only source of funds available to Government for this project?

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy where there are no political parties and national elections are not permitted. It is expected to register a huge estimated budget deficit of US$ 87 billion in 2016 owing to low oil prices. Saudi Arabia already has a controversial and contested role in Yemen (where its coalition air raids condemned by the EU has been castigated for its heavy toll of civilian casualties), Syria and other countries of the Middle East.

Mauritius therefore needs to exercise extreme caution in the choice of funding away from traditional sources for projects, however important these are. In line with our long established policy, we have to ensure that all funds made available for the financing of mega projects are ‘stringless’ and ‘neutral’ apart from obviously being clean. Mauritius should under no circumstances compromise on its sovereignty or internal harmony.

Similarly, the reported proposal of Dubayy Ports World for a strategic partnership regarding the Port raises fundamental questions. The Port has from the time of the French been a strategic asset for an exporting country like Mauritius and a vital conduit for its imports and exports. Whatever be the terms proposed, it would be foolhardy and plainly daft for the country to lose control over such a key strategic asset.

What is certainly required is a modernisation and a significant upgrading of the facilities and efficiency of the port facilities to align it to the benchmarks of the most efficient ports in the Indian Ocean so that it can become a key element of a multifaceted Maritime hub in Port-Louis. However, this important objective can in no circumstances mean ceding control over the Port facilities.

We must remember that private operators such as Essar Ports Limited or Adani Ports have invested in a series of private port facilities in India which they efficiently run and manage in parallel with government port facilities. Given the sensitive nature of these negotiations, it is vital that these are necessarily carried out in a very transparent manner.

The government faces a logjam of its own making as it is heavily dependent on substantial private sector and foreign investments to deliver on its promises of an economic miracle. However, no one in the country is prepared to go to any lengths or accept that the proposed mega projects are implemented at any cost.

Come what may, the country must retain absolute ownership over its development choices and future. The multitude must therefore ensure that the Government stays on course and under no circumstances loses the plot.

* Published in print edition on 19 February 2016

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