The Anguish of Civil Society

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

The PM has said it loud and clear: everyone in the statal and parastatal bodies has to be result-oriented and efficient to enhance the economic performance of the country. We hope he means business.

On the other hand, civil society has the right to ask the rulers a few questions and expect clear answers:

Who are the ultimate beneficiaries of high economic performance? Are most people just cogs in the machine of the ultra-liberalist economic system? We spend hundreds of millions on food imports, yet investors are focussing on real estate business and fertile lands have been allocated to the Jin Fei project, the clauses of which have still not been revealed to the public.

There is presently a rat race among private sector groups to grab as much land as they can in this small island. Every two weeks, the press announces new real estate projects of local groups with European, South African, Indian or Chinese partners. What will the living conditions of most Mauritians look like in a near future? Already salaries are stagnating, food prices are going up, and land speculation is making property and housing unaffordable even for the middle class. Are people expected to be efficient and result-oriented for peanuts?

A few months ago, it was one local group which had partnered with a French group for putting up a housing project in Pointe aux Piments; another group has laid its hands on lands at Poste Lafayette; South African groups are coveting more lands, and meanwhile you are hoping that they will leave the beautiful natural surroundings of the south untouched. Now we told of Union sugar property group coming up with a housing project in Gris Gris.

Food and housing are the basic requirements of the people. Are some people just going to earn enough to survive? Those in the middle class who can save some money find the price of lands unaffordable. Does the government expect three or four families to live on 400 square metres of lands inherited from their parents?

Why should a few people be allowed to grab all the lands and build houses for others at soaring prices? Can’t people have the pleasure of designing their own houses? Will there be any natural spots left for Mauritians to enjoy? Every week-end hundreds of Singaporeans leave their apartments on the 10th floor and the concrete jungle that surrounds them and travel to Malaysia for 4 hours by bus through Johore Baru to the east coast to relax in the beach resorts while others fly to the north eastern Malaysian islands. Where will Mauritians go once all the beautiful places are covered with concrete and reserved for foreigners?

Three hundred years ago, the King of France and the French East India Company sealed our fate by allocating lands for peanuts to a handful of sugar barons. Whatever happened to the democratisation of the economy agenda?

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Death of a Swami

The authorities are accountable to the people for the management of public funds. When and how is it going to retrieve the huge sums siphoned off by Air Mauritius, Infinity Tower and the Medpoint dubious deal? How many other cases have not been revealed to the public for lack of transparency for decades?

In India, instead of showing sincerity in fighting against corruption, the government is engaged in a confrontation with yoga guru Ramdev and Anna Hazare by loading them with asinine and unpalatable epithets. Hazare is being called an ‘unelected dictator’, the swami ‘a thug’, ‘a cheat’, ‘a fraud’ and ‘a coward’. In fact, the four ministers who fell at the swami’s feet at Delhi airport and later sent 5000 policemen to disperse Swami Ramdev’s supporters, initially agreed to most of the swami’s demands. What they did not accede to concerned the list of people who have stashed billions of dollars in Swiss banks.

It is alleged that the names of the top brass of the Congress Party are to be found on that list, hence the panic and the mudslinging campaign directed against the Swami. It is believed that the government is trying to delay the process of retrieving black money stashed abroad. While the Finance Minister, who fell at the swami’s feet two weeks ago, is now focusing on the Rs 1 100 crore of the yoga guru’s empire, other observers want to know why the Gandhi family flew to Switzerland for a 3-day vacation last week-end.

Everybody knows about ayurvedic centres, yoga centres, hospital treatment for free, and soon a whole island for yoga off the coast of Scotland donated to swami Ramdev by one rich Non-Resident Indian. The guru is reaching out to millions of people who believe in the welfare he is bringing them; nobody is being forced or manipulated to attend the courses. Being rich is not a crime, being a thief with billions of public funds while one third of the population lives under poverty threshold is. The issue is the colossal amount of more than Rs 400 lakh crores of Indian money stashed away in Swiss banks, not the Rs 1 100 crore of the swami.

The pro-Congress English language press in India is bent on undermining the anti-corruption campaign and its views are echoed in the foreign press. The English-speaking media seem to endorse the ruling party’s view that Hazare’s group working on the Lok Pal Bill is elitist. But this section of the media is backed by corporate lobbyisyts and represents the elitist section of the population. It does not understand the anger of civil society. The Indian masses and their holy men do understand the pain and concern of Swami Nigamanand who fasted for 119 days in protest against illegal mining along the Ganges and who died last Tuesday at the age of 36. Our view is that holy men had better stay alive and contribute to the well-being of society than sacrifice their own life.

Those who wield power, be it First or Fourth Estate, will hold on to power. What they fear is the prospect of losing it especially when they are confronted with a tough negotiator like the swami and a determined social activist who has given a deadline to sort out the scourge of corruption. The best picture we have had these days is that of members of civilian society who form part of the committee, discussing clauses of the Lok Pal Bill. Young men in their early thirties, dynamic and determined, who can lead the country, if need be, in the place of the 70-plus PM, Ministers and MPs, who look like visiting great-grand uncles in international fora.

* * *

Logging in for citizen participation

TR Raghunandan of the Bangalore non-profit organisation, Janaagraha, has set up the website inviting people to tell their stories of giving bribes or not having to give bribes in order to assess the extent of corruption, the ‘under-the-table economy’ and to enable citizen participation in public governance. Indians abroad are joining in, so are other people in countries.

After the Indian model, Chinese civilians have started a ‘’. Chinese protest movements are being violently repressed these days; activists who denounced corruption of local officials and the police in land dealings have been murdered.

Corruption is a major scourge undermining material and moral progress in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and in half-baked small island democracies. Activists and other spokesmen have expressed their anger as well as distress about this state of affairs. In this context, a growing awareness campaign and the call for citizen participation should be encouraged.

* Published in print edition on 17 June 2011

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