Vox Populi As The Paramount Arbiter

The people have the right to have a determinant say on everything which shapes their society, its ethos and its policy framework

No nation should allow debates on fundamental issues which shape the nature and ethos of the society they want to live in to be usurped by the usual protagonists who monopolize such debates. These protagonists include the government in place, the opposition, the media, the private sector, trade unions, all kinds of lobbies and all those who are constantly jockeying for their own vested interests rather than the public interest, which must remain supreme.

Freedom has brought fundamental and unalienable rights to the citizen and the people. Among these are the freedom of opinion, the right to be and all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human rights which every person is inherently entitled to. Above all, the people have the right to have a determinant say on everything which shapes their society, its ethos and its policy framework.

In short, this means that a few scores of elected Members cannot be a substitute or surrogate to the will of the people. The people and vox populi thus remain the ultimate arbiter. The people must therefore exercise their overriding right to oversee, veto and have their say on all policy decisions likely to impact on their lives, their livelihood and their future. Through a proactive engagement in the national debate, the people must therefore ensure that vox populi remains present and paramount at all times.

The people’s scrutiny and say are even more important in a national context when so many matters left to the political class are going awry. Instead of a constructive national debate on how best to carry Mauritius to higher levels of inclusive prosperity and improved standards of living with everyone on board, the country is systemically mired in a futile game of political one-upmanship as the opposition parties misguidedly feel that their role is to continuously oppose and be perpetually at loggerheads with the elected government. Wresting power is the overriding motivation. The intent is to fully exploit every misstep of government in order to undermine it.

However, the opposition is itself in turmoil and under the scrutiny of the people. Yet, both the leaders of the Labour Party and the MMM unabashedly continue to lead their parties in the teeth of valid questions about legitimacy and credibility raised in the wake of the rout suffered by them at the last polls in December 2014 and in the latter case also at the municipal polls in June

The current issue of street hawkers in Port Louis is a case in point. It shows how politics and political parties can have a toxic effect in the country. Instead of ensuring that every citizen abides by the law and rules of equity, the opposition parties are hell-bent on gaining political capital out of the conflict. Eking out a living cannot be done through indiscipline or by flouting the law. The government is right in its uncompromising stance vis-à-vis unruly street hawkers defying a Supreme Court ruling, occupying pavements, unfairly competing against rates paying shop owners and obstructing pedestrian traffic in the city.

In this context, there would be merit in establishing the credentials of each hawker, in finding out about who actually owns or supplies the stocks of goods on sale and whether some are not using the hawker mantle to obtain pignon sur rue in the main commercial arteries of Port Louis without the hassle of paying rates, rent or goodwill? Are some simply employed on a daily basis, as part of a larger organization?

Decades of pandering to the hawkers’ bank vote in Port Louis and bending the rules have led to licence and spawned new cohorts of street hawkers occupying and choking the main streets and pavements of the city. This has to stop. All the main markets of the towns of the country have a hawkers’ area. Some towns even have a special hawkers’ day in the main market places. Why do all hawkers not abide by the same rules and discipline?

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The Call for Innovativeness

At the meeting with the private sector last week in the context of the budgetary consultations, the Prime Minister (PM) urged them to be more innovative in order to boost growth and warned that the country cannot bank solely on real estate developments to meet the government objectives of employment and growth. Besides, the multiplicity of smart city projects and other prime real estate ventures hike the value of land in the country causing access to land to build a house even more out of reach of mainstream Mauritius. As has been the case elsewhere, isn’t it time to resolve the burning problem of access to land through a substantive land reform policy, bearing in mind the vast concentration of land assets in the country?

It is comforting to note that the PM has realized that high end smart city projects are not the panacea which can resolve the problems of sustainable growth and employment faced by the country or meet the aspirational needs of the people and its educated youth. It must be said that never before have we seen government so dependent on the private sector to meet its promised development goals.

There is a legitimate impatience at the delays in delivery. Instead of getting on with it, the private sector, always jockeying for more advantages on top of the extremely generous tax and duty exemptions conceded in the context of the Smart City Scheme set up by government, is now seeking additional business facilitation measures. This new buzz word comprises single desk and fast track approval of permits and diverse authorizations and basically ironing out of all obstacles for easing and starting the business ventures swiftly.

The authorities must however ensure that business facilitation is not made at the expense of rigour and strict compliance with the diverse norms and benchmarks which include environmental, green energy, waste disposal and social integration criteria, etc., included in the cahier des charges applicable to the smart cities and other projects.

The PM’s call for innovativeness also begs the question of whether the private sector is out of steam to charter innovative pathways to operate profitably in a liberalized market place devoid of preferential market access and export quotas. The high end real estate, commercial-cum-business park driven business model has for decades been developed abroad in countries such as the Dominican Republic or South Africa and has since some years been replicated here.

It should be noted that the smart city scheme can only benefit sugar groups owning large land holdings in prime locations having an upmarket real estate development potential. The PM is therefore right to ask the private sector to be more innovative as the real stimulus to substantive and inclusive growth and gainful employment will come from innovative ventures in the ICT/BPO, the financial services, the projected multifaceted Port activities, the health and education hubs and other services’ sectors than from high end villas sold to foreign buyers.

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The PRB in question

The Pay Research Bureau much awaited salary proposals for the civil service and the government establishment are official since the beginning of the month. It is forecast to cost an additional Rs 3 billion to the Exchequer. Beyond the normal rhetoric about necessary corrections, the errors and omissions report, reduced increments, the angst over option forms and a long list of other grievances aired by the various trade unions representing different categories of government employees, should we not also look at such important related issues such as the yawning income inequalities and the quality of service to the public?

Why on earth should the huge 1:7 ratio of disparity between the monthly salary of Rs 122,000 of a permanent secretary and that of a labourer earning Rs 17,375 become a rigid dogma of status of the top brass of the Government Establishment? This ratio in fact masks the significantly higher actual ratio of income disparity when the salaries of those occupying higher posts and earning much higher monthly incomes than the benchmark of Rs 122,000 are taken into consideration. Are we perpetuating the system of colonial sahibs lording it over the toiling hoi polloi prior to independence?

A survey of the range of salaries prevailing in the Government Establishment reveals the enormous gap between the salaries and handsome perks enjoyed by the top brass and upper echelon of the Establishment and those in the middle and lower echelons. Casting such an iniquitous ratio in stone also gives a wrong signal to the private sector where substantial income inequalities should also be narrowed.

The present grid of salaries remains heavily skewed in favour of the higher echelons of the Establishment which enables them to have an enormous disposable income and a lavish lifestyle. In contrast, the middle echelon graduate cadres and professionals are strapped to afford existential needs such as investing in a house and a car or going on holidays whilst the lower echelons have difficulties to make both ends meet in a context of rising costs.

A new approach towards salaries aimed at narrowing income inequalities in the country is therefore urgently required to levels which enable both middle and lower echelon income earners to meet their existential needs and live comfortably. The battle for a narrowing of inequality in the country must start here. The capacity of the middle echelon graduate cadres to afford buying a house or a flat should be a key element of the new approach of narrowing the enormous salary differentials prevailing presently.

The Civil service above all means service to the people. The public perception is that the standard of service to the population is in many cases far from being perfect. It is therefore important that the public evaluation of the quality of service provided by the various government services is regularly measured independently. This will help take the necessary corrective measures to set things right so that the civil service assumes its mission of service to the people with courtesy, efficiency and ideally with zero complaint.

Similarly, the policy framing and managerial acumen of the government Establishment leaves much to be desired. Interference and nominations at the expense of merit and the more deserving have taken their toll. Where are today’s equivalent of the senior civil servants of yore who used to arbitrate the thorniest of issues with such judicious aplomb or tender smart advice to the government with such incisive wisdom?  Today, too many seem to be out of their depths and incapable of confronting lobbies to play the role of a fair arbiter and safeguard public interest.. It is therefore imperative that the quality of the civil service and the government Establishment is urgently upgraded through the recruitment of the best talents available based strictly on principles of meritocracy, transparency and equal opportunities.

Living in a multi-cultural society, we are de facto global citizens. As a nation, comprising people imbued with a potent pioneering spirit and synergies through rubbing shoulders with each other, we have everything to succeed in a globalised world. Our history as a nation shows that we can grapple with and overcome the most daunting challenges. The current sorry state of affairs is the time to show that we collectively have the mettle and innovative thinking to do so.

* Published in print edition on 29 April 2016

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