On 12 March 1968, when the flag of Mauritius was flown for the first time at the Champ de Mars, it was not quite clear what the future of the country would be. made of. We had just emerged from a tumultuous election the year before in which the population appeared to have been torn asunder into two distinct blocs, at loggerheads with each other on partisan lines compounded by the racial/religious divide.
Unemployment stalked high. More than 20% of the population had no steady work occupation. Government finances were in bad shape, having been supported so far by grants from the UK. The whole campaign of the anti-independence party, the PMSD, rested on the argument that an independent Mauritius did not have the economic wherewithal to survive. The main thing we produced at the time was sugar. Fluctuations in its international price depressed the already weak sustenance level of the population. The majority of the people lived in conditions of dire poverty.
It goes to the credit of political leaders of that period that, despite the almost desperate situation which prevailed all around, they battled it out to gain independence. There was an ideal to pursue, but it commanded a price. The political leadership assumed the risk; it was leadership of the highest kind, one that would not be deterred from facing the high risks associated with an island without natural resources and an economy which Professors Titmuss and Meade had cautioned as from 1961 to be heading towards a Malthusian debacle if corrective measures/development programmes, which they themselves had proposed, were not initiated.
The task of transforming the country was formidable. The force of circumstances was such that, once independence became a fait accompli, the leader of the PMSD was persuaded to join hands with the Labour Party in an overturning political coalition to help prevent the drift which could have brought the country’s economy to its knees. This is where the economic diversification of Mauritius was launched in a world with pervasive trade barriers and restrictions. Textiles and tourism were the first blocks to emerge.
The backbone of the new diversification drive was a committed civil service, trained by the preceding British government in the art of delivering concrete results. We were fortunate that we had such a strong and ingenious civil service which was listened to by the country’s political leaders. Had it not been for their path-finding sound contribution, we could have lost our way. The country’s infrastructure (roads, port, airport, water, electricity, schools, hospitals) was improved. This made it easier for goods and the people to move places. People started getting into new jobs in both the public and private sectors. The process was slow at first but it gained pace as markets opened up in the West. In the next two decades after 1968, textile factories were implanted in almost all parts of the island. From less than $500 in 1968, our GDP per capita is expected to reach $11200 by the end of 2020 (according to Trading Economics global macro models and analysts expectations) – that’s no mean achievement for a country that has gone on diversifying its economic base. Economic development coming in the wake of independence has improved the lot of most households, nothing comparable to the bleak outlook of 1968.
Communal tension, which had raised its head in the pre-independence period, was also doused by the sheer scale of economic uptake as well as the universally applicable public policies followed by the country’s various governments. Sectarianism could have thwarted our progress along the path of progress but it didn’t because successive governments after independence have ensured that all have equal undiscriminated access to the free education and free health care that governments have instituted since independence. Social welfare benefits are likewise available to all across the board without discrimination. Tolerance of diverse customs, beliefs and traditions in this multiracial place has been a key factor towards the national consolidation we see today. We have free media, which acts as a safety valve to help vent out pent-up feelings, if any.
What we see today as the country’s production infrastructure has not been achieved by chance. Much hard work has gone into it and still is.
However the world we see today holds out similar if not bigger challenges than those faced by leaders of the independence era. New problems have today cropped up: growing inequality in Mauritian society, bleak employment prospects for the young, the crowding out of large swathes of the population from the housing market due to skewed public policy in matters of real estate development, etc.
The protectionist regimes are a thing of the past, and we have today to compete with the rest of the world. Our financial centre, which has provided employment to young qualified Mauritians – at least 14,000 at one time, has lost part of its attraction with the revision of the double taxation avoidance agreement (DTAA) between Mauritius and India. It is also the object of constant attack and occasionally threatened of being blacklisted because of alleged malfeasance in the offshore sector. The sugar sector, which is increasing being seen as the ‘sunset industry’, is being propped up by public finances, and a large proportion of small planters have already abandoned their lands in the wake of falling sugar prices on the world market, non-availability of labour and higher production costs. The education sector is not doing well despite all the reform/restructuring programmes initiated by succeeding governments. The continuous decline in the performance of this critical sector is a matter of serious concern for a country which aspires to be a knowledge hub, and the 2019 SC exams results point to the immense challenge we are faced with.
The work of transformation we embarked on 52 years ago has perforce to continue in the future, but in an increasingly and more competitive environment. We have no option but to aggressively adapt, if we do not want to regress if not perish. New challenges and problems stare us in the face, and we will need to pull out all the stops to deal with them. The decision makers will have to bring all people of goodwill together to take the country forward, and address the issues of gnawing inequality and the disparities that threaten to undo all that has been achieved so far.
* Published in print edition on 12 March 2020