Once a government and its institutions lose legitimacy, it opens the way for chaos and this is not what we need during these trying times
By Sada Reddi
There is no doubt that the protest march of the 11 July organized by the ‘collective solidarity’ movement was a resounding success. It is also a new beginning for it is quite a long time that we have not seen something like this. Most of the trade unions and NGOs had come together to put a strong defence of the rights of workers and citizens.
“What the workers were protesting about, as expressed in their various banners and placards, was the defence of their rights as workers, as human beings and as citizens. Overhearing many of them, I found that they cared much less about VIPs abusing their power; their priorities and concerns were about the increasing economic precariousness of the nation, particularly the productive class, the growing unemployment, increasing inflation, rampant corruption, the rising cost of living…”
There were doubts about whether there would be good crowd because it is argued that people no longer take to street protests. Times have changed and the millennials glued to their smartphones express their views through the social media, and that’s the end of it. Nobody would dispute these assertions, but a culture of protest has also to be taught and learnt, and maybe little has been done by the elders to promote protest as an attribute of citizenship.
Coming back to trade union unity, the earliest example of this was in 1978 when the FSN, a National Front of Trade Unions of both the Civil Service and the private sector, including the GWF was formed to seek an increase in wages to compensate for the loss of purchasing power. The present protest is also a new beginning and it augurs well for the future of the country. Who knows, we may be at the beginning of a new cycle.
As such, it reminds me of the MMM demonstration against Princess Alexandra and her husband in 1969 when some hundreds of people were present to protest against a symbol of capitalism. The demonstration was dispersed in the gathering darkness by teargas. I happened to be there with a few teachers and students at the invitation of my friend Kritikumar Goburdhun, then a teacher at the Presidency college, to join in. With hindsight, the demonstration turned out to be a defining moment for the MMM.
A bit of history tells us that from that early beginning, a mass protest movement emerged in the 1970s with a by-election and the strike in 1971 which are important turning points in our history. A sustained sensitization by the collectif could certainly usher in a new political culture and bring hope to the country.
The protest march was peaceful and it started with the planting of a Trochetia in Cathedral Square to mark the event and a homage was paid to Anjalay Coopen, the martyr of the Belle Vue Harel shooting. This was followed by a peaceful march with banners expressing the concerns of the people; it was punctuated by speeches from trade unionists and other organisers. It went past the Prime Minister’s office where it delivered a letter to the head of Government and continued its way to the Company’s Garden.
A fair and personal assessment of the crowd suggests that it was mostly the active members of the different organizations together with obviously many other individuals, including some young people, who were present. They therefore represent the core of our active citizenship in the country. A more active sensitization campaign should get more millennials to join in.
What the workers were protesting about, as expressed in their various banners and placards, was the defence of their rights as workers, as human beings and as citizens. Overhearing many of them, I found that they cared much less about VIPs abusing their power; their priorities and concerns were about the increasing economic precariousness of the nation, particularly the productive class, the growing unemployment, increasing inflation, rampant corruption, the rising cost of living and the regular laying off of workers by employers – even among those who had benefited from wage assistance.
The increasing arbitrariness of government, particularly the Covid-19 Act and the quarantine measures came in for loads of criticisms. The government was accused of using the epidemic as a strategy to muzzle the nation. Every now and then marchers would shout shrill slogans at the top of their voice that were repeated in chorus. Even for those who marched in a religious silence, their eyes spoke their thoughts. What infuriated most of them was the loss of their pension and all the contributions they had made over the years that had vanished into thin air. They wanted back their pension and could have clamoured that they wanted their pension, the whole pension and nothing but their pension.
The remarkable achievement of the protesters is a powerful signal to the government. It may choose to respond positively or ignore them. It may continue to believe that a public relations exercise and media control are sufficient to govern the country in these critical times. With the worse still to come, more measures are needed to protect the workers and more creative policies are required to deal with the unprecedented economic problems looming on the horizon.
Many may not have grasped the problems facing the country that in many cases are self-inflicting. It is now that they realize the importance of a national carrier and that we cannot rely on other foreign airlines to safeguard our interests. At the moment many parents cannot send their children to school or feed them properly because they have lost their jobs. In the past a caring government did not facilitate the laying off of workers but made great efforts to create more jobs and even supplemented wages with rations for the deserving poor. In the sugar industry labourers who had completed 80% presence during the crop season were entitled to a job during the intercrop season. Admittedly different times need different solutions but the bottom line is that every citizen must be provided with sufficient means to live a decent life.
These are indeed very difficult times. We need competent and creative people, consultations and consensus to find and implement appropriate solutions. For too long we have believed that a coterie can govern and administer the country. The consequences and the hard facts have hit us hard in the face in terms of corruption and incompetence that are wasteful of our limited resources.
The protest march is just a beginning and in coming months will tend to widen as an increasing number of people feel the pinch. Unsolved economic problems and poor governance will hit at the main pillar of government, that is legitimacy. Once a government and its institutions lose legitimacy, it opens the way for chaos and this is not what we need during these trying times.
* Published in print edition on 14 July 2020