The Mess Is Getting Messier

Is the country in free-fall? Too many things seem to be falling apart and going asunder. Why is there this sickening feeling that the stewardship of the affairs of the country and the policy responses to resolve the many problems faced by the country, particular sectors and the people seems incoherent and muddled up?

The events of the past week have jolted the nation. It has once again brought to light that the constant rhetoric on good governance repeated like a leitmotiv on nearly every official occasion is not matched by deeds. The innocent are arrested on terrorist charges by the police before these are struck off in court two months later. Was it too much to expect an official apology for this gaffe and the profound anguish caused? Is it not also time to amend the law to cast in stone the sacrosanct principle of présomption d’innocence and to put an end to the arbitrary use of arrest and custody as instruments of humiliation?

In reply to a parliamentary question this week, the Prime Minister stated that he was shocked to read the transcript of the conversation between a Minister of his government and a businessman which triggered his request that the Minister steps down.

Any politician professing to serve the country must be imbued with the highest values and code of ethics. They must show sound judgement at all times and ensure that their conduct and probity are unimpeachable. Why is it that such simple and sacrosanct rules of conduct, which are part of their contract of trust with the people, are so often breached by politicians and leaders? Are the altruism and selfless sense of service to the nation of yore, so potently evidenced during the fight for our rights and the freedom of the country, no longer part of today’s political ethos?

It must be said that over time, the quality and ability of people joining politics seemed to have been whittled away. Instead of being chosen on the basis of their intellect, proven talent, ideals and values, they have for decades now been chosen on the basis of their creed, race or caste. This sectarian approach has watered down standards.

Similarly, over the years too many in the civil service have also jockeyed for and obtained appointments as a result of political patronage instead of merit, at the expense of more deserving candidates. Too many seem to have been cowed down into subservience by fear caused by the high-handedness and diktats of those in power. Too many also seem to have failed to stand up to stop flagrant violations of the public interest.

The combination of these two factors has thus severely dented the administrative and management acumen of government and the civil service Establishment.

Hype or panacea

Under pressure to deliver on the promises made to the people, the government has hyped smart cities as the magic panacea which will resolve all our diverse socio-economic problems in a context of stunted growth and high unemployment. The Smart City Scheme set up by the government provides ‘an enabling framework and a package of attractive fiscal and non-fiscal incentives to investors for the development of smart cities across the island’. The generous tax breaks include an income tax holiday of 8 years, exemption from an array of taxes including land conversion, morcellement, land transfer taxes, VAT and various duties. According to the Board of Investment blurb, this concept enables promoters to invest in inter alia a mix of commercial, office, light industrial, medical, education, tourism and leisure clusters and high-end residential estates on green field sites using green sources of energy and sustainable technologies regarding water and waste management, etc.

The three smart city projects of Mon Tresor, Cap Tamarin and Moka which have so far obtained their letter of intent from government (as well as some in the pipeline) are thus a mixed bag of commercial, residential, office, industrial, educational, medical or leisure hubs developed in most cases by sugar groups on thousands of acres of their sugar cane land assets. The financial gearing of these projects is anchored on their commercial component and their high-end residential estates which target foreign buyers. From information made public, these projects will entail some Rs 20 billion of investment over the next years till 2020 and beyond and are expected to generate some 3800 jobs in all. Is it not too little for such high investments outlays and potentially highly profitable ventures?

Unsurprisingly, there is therefore a pervasive public perception that the current smart city template of development and permutations thereof does not provide a cogent and appropriate policy response to the legitimate aspirational and urgent existential needs of the people such as gainful employment for the thousands of unemployed, affordable housing, improved standards of living, significantly more efficient public services and inclusive growth. As is the case elsewhere in the world and in the case of the Heritage City project, why have the work-live-play smart cities model not integrated in its cahier des charges a component of affordable houses and flats for the young, the middle class and mainstream Mauritius in a context when increasingly large swathes of the population cannot afford to buy a house or a flat?

Similarly, has the government ensured that such important projects benefiting from handsome tax and other incentives from government also address the substantive issue of the 42,600 unemployed in the country, 20% of which have a tertiary education, bearing in mind their diverse qualifications and skills spectrum and that some 4000 university graduates trained abroad or locally enter the job market every year?

It must be remembered that the private sector is by far the principal source of jobs in the country, employing more than three times the number of people in the public sector. We cannot have a model of development where the private sector derives significant benefits from its offer of an increasing number of diploma and graduate courses at high costs to students from all walks of life in educational parks across the country including those soon to be started within the smart cities and then not employ them in their other ventures. This would be socially and politically untenable.

In the context of the widening inequalities in the country, sustainable development necessarily means taking everyone on board. Smart cities must therefore be integrated within Mauritian society and be a showcase of a modern, inclusive, convivial, green and eco-friendly habitat for all. They should certainly not mean a proliferation of gated enclaves in the Republic.

A few good men

The country can no longer be governed in a makeshift manner. Too many flawed policy decisions are being taken by those entrusted with ministries. For example, how can government envisage implementing the fundamentally flawed recommendations of the Landell Mills report aimed essentially at propping the production of uncompetitive white refined sugar with an array of disputed measures at the expense of domestic consumers and car owners, etc., when these have been categorically rejected by two of the major stakeholders of the sugar cane sector, namely the planters and workers? This is simply not on.

In the light of the present constraints, all that is required for government to run the country competently is a few good men. The present government has a few good Ministers who manage their Ministries efficiently with intelligence and professional acumen. The judicious option for the Prime Minister would therefore be to set up a steering committee comprising the few good men to oversee and screen all policy decisions to ensure that these do not serve the interests of the few but those of the multitude and the public good at all times. At this critical hour, Mauritians with diverse expertise will readily respond to any call for help by the PM, for free.

Our democracy therefore needs to be urgently revisited. The political leaders who have alternatively run successive past governments with similar track record of governance have from the standpoint of the electorate already come to the end of their political life cycle. The true democratisation of the political parties is a necessary condition for a sea change in approach to allow the induction of new talent and innovative leadership to inspire and guide Mauritius towards higher levels of success, standard of living and inclusive prosperity. The time is ripe for this.

*  Published in print edition on 1 April 2016

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