Is the country in free fall?

The nation and the people cannot accept to be short changed by ill-thought-out policies and policy makers who are incapable of separating the wheat from the chaff or unswervingly uphold public interest against the weight of vested lobbies

Lord protect me from my friends, I can take care of my enemies.

 — Voltaire

Inspired by the ideas laid down in the Indian Constitution, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was set up in 1969 to bring real India, in its complex diversity, inequalities and rich plurality together around secular values and inclusive ideals. The criteria of admission were couched to bring young men and women students from all corners of India representing in essence a microcosm of India together. These included for example students from backward areas, low income families or children of defence personnel killed in action. In line with the lofty vision of those who conceived JNU, such a unique place of learning has from the outset promoted a culture of critical thinking, integration and inclusiveness and free exchange of ideas. Studying at JNU is in essence a dialogue with the nation.

Prominent alumni such as Ayesha Kidwai, a professor at JNU said that when she joined JNU as a student ‘It was the first time I met India’. After 47 years, JNU continues to be a centre of learning of excellence. It was awarded a score of 3.91 out of 4 in 2012 by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, the highest score obtained by any educational institution in India. Interacting and rubbing shoulders with students from across India has enabled JNU students have firsthand knowledge and ‘primary data’ about India and thus better grasp the intricacies of the country. These have been invaluable in their jobs as academics, top executives or policy makers.

The questionable Mauritian model

Do Ministers and policy makers in Government know or try to know the true reality of Mauritius or the real concerns of people and stakeholders in different sectors before chalking out policies? Have they met real Mauritius such as seen the weather-beaten face of a woman manual worker aged 50 but looking 10 years older eating her cold lunch, prepared after waking up at three in the morning, under pouring rain at her place of work in the cane fields. Although toiling hard in rain and sunshine for decades for the prosperity of the sugar industry, she still earns less than Rs 10,000 per month. In many ways, she epitomises the narrative of Mauritius. It all started there in the cane fields and for too many, the toil and hardships have not ended, despite numerous promises made. It potently depicts the abject failure of policy making.

No national policy can be judiciously framed without a thorough knowledge of the ground reality. Without seasoned and competent policy makers taking time to understand and become fully cognisant of the issues involved in the sector or matter concerned after inter alia holding widespread consultations with all parties concerned. This methodical approach and the expert advice of competent policy makers are sine qua non conditions for sound policy making in respect of any national problem.

The best democracies of the world have put in place a merit based system of recruitment to harness the best brains and talents available to efficiently man the government Establishment. The École nationale d’administration (ENA) in France, the top universities of the United Kingdom and the gruelling and highly competitive Civil Services Examinations which select those joining the Indian Administrative Service or the Indian Foreign Service provide the top cadres and policy makers of these countries.

In Mauritius, political interference and the appointment of political appointees to key posts by successive governments have gradually blunted the efficiency of the civil service and its policy framing acumen. To make matters worse, inexperienced neophytes have been entrusted with key ministries dealing with complex sectors facing daunting challenges. No wonder, the Ministers and the top cadres and aides responsible for framing government policies in various key sectors seem to be out of their depths.

Taking stock of government policy responses to the many problems faced by Mauritius in respect of growth and employment and key sectors of the economy such as the financial services, the tertiary education or the sugar cane sector, etc., shows that these have been largely ill-thought-out.

Are vested lobbies calling the shots?

Let us take the energy sector. The common aim of COP 21 and the policy of the Ministry of Energy is to substantially reduce our dependence on carbon emitting coal and other fossil fuels, by 2025. Despite the hype about bagasse, it must be underlined that its share in the production of energy in the country has steadily decreased to a mere 12.7 % in 2014 owing to a quantum fall in the area under cane and an annual reduction in the acreage under cane cultivation.

This declining trend is expected to continue, fuelled by the extremely generous exemptions from land conversion tax at the rate of Rs 3.5 million per hectare and other taxes and duties granted by government in the context of the Smart City Scheme. Thus, large swathes of cane lands are earmarked for smart city, real estate, educational hubs, business parks and other development projects allowed under the scheme. Similarly, the scripted abandonment of cane cultivation by sugar planters will continue owing to continued annual losses incurred from sugar.

In parallel, the use of highly polluting coal in the cogeneration plants and the coal only plant at Beau Champ has been increasing annually. Coal plants are a major source of carbon dioxide emissions and the primary source of global warming. To produce the same amount of energy, coal releases much more carbon dioxide (about 1.45 times more) in the atmosphere than gasoline. Burning coal is also a leading cause of toxic air pollution and acid rain, etc.

In 2014, around 86% of the total primary energy requirements of the country were met from imported fossil fuels (petroleum products 55% and coal 31%) against 85% in the preceding year. These represented an import bill of Rs 31.146 billion equal to 18% of the country’s total import bill. 14% of the total primary energy requirements were obtained from local renewable sources namely: hydro, wind, landfill gas, photovoltaic, bagasse and fuel wood. Bagasse represented some 12.7% of the sources of energy.

It is therefore time for government to call the shots as opposed to vested lobbies protected by leonine contracts cast in stone. In line with the COP21 commitments, the way forward is therefore to urgently invest substantially more in renewable sources of energy from solar and wind energy farms, tidal wave energy or geothermic heat, etc., to significantly reduce our dependence on more carbon dioxide emitting coal and petroleum products. This is already happening with the coming into operation of various solar energy farms and a wind energy farm in the country as well as other steps being taken to tap diverse other forms of renewable energy. The indications are that Mauritius will attain its target of producing 35% of our energy requirements from renewable energy sources by 2025, earlier than expected.

The Minister of Energy advised last week that he was confident that the threshold of 32% will be achieved in 2017 and that Mauritius will attain a much higher level of energy from renewable sources than 35%, in 2025. Different projects in the pipeline which include the use of plant biomass, tidal wave energy, the combustion of waste as well as solar and wind energy farms will help attain these objectives. Our national objective should therefore be to maximize our production of energy from renewable sources so as to minimize the production of energy from highly polluting coal and other fossil fuels to the highest extent possible. This will also significantly reduce our import bill and improve our trade balance.

Lack of coherence

Under such circumstances, what is the logic of the government’s recent decision to establish a framework to compel vehicle owners to use an ethanol mix when ethanol use is dependent on the use of carbon emitting gasoline? Why is there such largesse once again at the expense of the population despite protests by sugar planters? Why not encourage the use of more environmentally friendly green vehicles and electric cars instead? This decision is the more disputable as sugar planters are given a significantly lower price of Rs 1,650 per tonne for their molasses used to produce ethanol compared to Rs 3,000 per tonne when sold as molasses. How can such a contested scheme be championed by government?

Ethanol is already produced for export. Why is it therefore necessary to create a mandatory captive market for it locally, as is the case presently for sugar through an import duty, presumably on prices linked to higher oil prices and the profitably of the ethanol plant, both detrimental to the interests of vehicle owners? Have the views of vehicles owners been sought? What makes this project such a pressing priority when the scientific evidence is that a larger volume of ethanol is required to travel the same distance as with gasoline?

Ethanol contains about one-third less energy than gasoline. Vehicles will typically go 3% to 4% fewer miles per gallon on E10 and 4% to 5% fewer on E15 than on 100% gasoline. Furthermore, ethanol requires more land and therefore more life cycle emissions (global warming potential) to produce than gasoline. Ethanol also causes damage to fuel engines and fuel water contamination. In Brazil, the experience with ethanol blends has been very mixed. The ecological impact of corralling millions of hectares of land for sugar cane cultivation has been disastrous. How can such a policy help further the objectives of COP21?

Is this insidious rear guard action coherent with the Ministry of Energy’s laudable initiatives to boost the production of energy from truly green renewable sources and the recent statements by the promoters of the wind energy Farms at Roches Noires that it is possible for Mauritius to produce 100% of its energy requirements from renewable sources?

How can government policy be subordinated to the interest of the particular at the expense of the multitude?

Sound policy making in the context of COP21 also means putting the interests of Mauritius and our planet above everything else.

For too long the independent energy production of the country has been ring fenced by the mirage of renewable bagasse when its availability was dwindling and carbon emissions from the combustion of increasing tonnages of carbon belching coal was increasing. It has masked the injurious fallout of coal driven carbon dioxide emissions.

Isn’t it therefore high time for government to urgently address the more pressing priorities in respect of the sugar cane sector such as the long outstanding issue of paying a fairer economic price to sugar planters for their molasses and bagasse or translating the 2007 Government-MSPA commitment to allocate 35% shareholding into the diverse ventures of the sugar cane cluster using their by-products as feedstock, to the sugar cane planters and employees of the sugar industry into reality?

These decisions will help shore, as is the case for the corporate sugar sector, the falling revenue from sugar by the more remunerative revenue streams from the ventures of the sugar cane cluster.

Despite the rhetoric that all policies adopted by the Minister and the Ministry of Agriculture in respect of the sugar cane sector are meant to help the sugar planters, this is blatantly not so. Despite constantly paying lip service to safeguard the interests of the sugar planters, it is flabbergasting to note that measures decried and opposed by the planting community such as the diverse flawed recommendations of the Landell Mills report or the recent closure of cane weighbridges in the south (in the teeth of the undertakings under the Blue Print on factory closure) blithely find their way into Cabinet decisions.

There is thus a pervasive feeling that the country is in free fall.

All national policies must stand the test of objective public scrutiny and the approval of stakeholders. The nation and the people cannot accept to be short changed by ill-thought-out policies and policy makers who are incapable of separating the wheat from the chaff or unswervingly uphold public interest against the weight of vested lobbies.

Shying away from meeting the real Mauritius and addressing its essential concerns comprehensively, won’t do.

* Published in print edition on 8 July 2016

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