Protesting For The Right Causes

The causes championed have to be right, not selective. Protests have to uphold causes benefitting the public interest rather than be targeted against specific projects

Whenever people feel aggrieved especially when their rights are being trampled upon or that standards of governance or government policy decisions are not right, it is both legitimate and democratic for them to raise their voices and protest. Protests must however stand for a right cause grounded on public interest and on solid arguments. For some time now protests seem to be selective and pandering to the interests of vested lobbies rather than rightful causes. The upshot is that wrong causes are being surreptitiously championed. In contrast, more fundamental issues affecting the country and the type of society we want to live in are being blindly ignored or worse blithely swept under the carpet.

The slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’ raised in the wake of the 7 February 2015 shooting which killed twelve people at the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo has become a rallying call for freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. There are so many things amiss in the country which needs to be urgently set right, through legitimate protests, if need be. In the light of the appalling findings of the Commission of Enquiry on Drug Trafficking, should we as a nation not be raising our voices and picketing the government for stricter laws and penal sanctions, akin to those in Singapore, to robustly combat and eliminate this evil and the illicit enrichment derived from the deadly trade of drug trafficking from the country?

No leg to stand on

The high density of daily commuters on the Curepipe-Port Louis thoroughfare has congested road traffic, increased air pollution and transit delays, etc. A Mass Rapid Transit or Metro system is therefore a must in Mauritius. All things being equal, it will daily significantly reduce such invisible but real socio-economic and environmental costs such as air pollution, tens of thousands tonnes of carbon emissions and man hours lost in traffic, commuting time, the wear and tear of vehicles, medical expenses related to stress and road accidents, etc. It will also significantly reduce the combustion of highly polluting fossil fuels as the Metro will be fueled by electricity produced increasingly, in the context of COP21 commitments, from diverse renewable and greener sources of energy such as solar and wind energy farms. The Metro will have a greener footprint. The current transport system is neither eco friendly nor sustainable in a modern Mauritius. In India, 30% of the energy used by the Delhi Metro is supplied by photovoltaic cells.

From information provided by government this week, the Metro Express project will have the same ticket price as a bus ticket, be viable even in the worst case scenario envisaged in the forward projections and create 7,000 jobs during the construction phase. It is estimated to reduce congestion costs by Rs 5 billion annually, vehicle operating costs by Rs 10 billion and polluting carbon emissions by 40,000 tonnes. A survey carried out recently showed that 79% of commuters will opt to travel by the Metro. Those protesting against the Metro Express basically do not have a leg to stand on. They have no facts or sound reasons to support their stance.

Getting it right

We must recall that this vital project for a modern Mauritius has been talked about for decades by successive governments. It has however been stalled by systemic indecision, the inability to find the right private sector partner amidst vested lobbies jockeying to seek advantage and adequate finance to implement such a project on Public-Private Partnership terms. The upshot is that these delays have significantly hiked its costs by billions of Rupees.

However, three determinant factors have made the Metro project possible today. It’s financing and improved viability thanks to a generous grant provided by India and the competent work carried out and expert advice provided by the consultants Singapore Corporation Enterprise. The Metro Project will thus be financed by Rs 9.9 billion allocated from the grant of US$ 343 million (Rs 12.7 billion) provided by India in 2016 representing more than half of the enhanced project cost of Rs 18.8 billion. This has facilitated obtaining financing for the balance of the project cost. These favourable conditions have changed the equation. No wonder, the government which had shelved and balked from the Metro project in March 2015 is now unabashedly taking credit for it.

However, the Metro Express as presented to the public this week begs several key questions. The operative words of an MRT system are Mass and Rapid. The video of the Metro Express shows a train which in too many places vies at ground level side by side with road traffic. To assure the swift transit of commuters, the Metro must eventually have an unhindered and speedy journey from Curepipe to Port-Louis. Is the present model of a train meandering through a succession of towns and 19 stations with a transit time of 41 minutes ideally conceived? We must remember that we cannot have a second shot at the Metro. We have to make sure that we conceptualize it and get it right first shot.

There are possibly two areas that could be reviewed to improve transit time. Why burden all commuters with so many stops? The manner in which some trains in peak time will be fast tracked by making fewer stops will also speed up transit time. One could for example envisage trains starting from Curepipe and Quatre Bornes going straight to Port Louis after the Rose-Hill interchange as well as trains plying between Rose-Hill and Port-Louis. There could also be non-stop trains between major towns and Port Louis and vice-versa. Secondly, couldn’t the sections of slower ground level town passages of trains such as in Quatre Bornes or Port-Louis not be put instead on elevated tracks to speed transit time, as is the case in Sydney?. It is also a pity that a short track linking say Trianon to the working hub of Ebene is not envisaged. Such a development will also help significantly alleviate the major parking problem in the Cyber City. The Singapore consultants and Larsen & Toubro should be able to provide enlightened guidance on the practicalities of such related issues aimed at further improving the model of Metro envisaged.

However, it is above all imperative that the Metro is set up and professionally managed as an independent company severed from crippling political interference. There is also an imperative need for transparency and accountability as well as the release of regular progress reports to the public during the implementation of the project. For starters, the increase of Rs 1.1 billion in the project cost from the forecast of Rs 17.7 billion to Rs 18.8 billion needs to be explained upfront.

Fighting for a better order

The tenor of constructive criticism has to be credible. Similarly, the causes championed have to be right, not selective. Protests have to uphold causes benefitting the public interest rather than be targeted against specific projects. They must be grounded on principles and solid facts rather than be a lot of hot air. For example, we should in the context of our COP21 commitments, be downscaling our energy production from more polluting coal (than gasoline). Why is there not even a whimper against plans for a new larger coal using power plant in the east after all the hullaballoo, some years ago against a coal based power plant in Albion? To be credible, the forces vives have to champion in priority causes which are germane to the interests of the multitude.

Why are there no voices raised by those being selectively vocal to bridge the widening inequalities in the country or to fundamentally review the government smart city scheme which is in essence outpricing land for residential and other purposes out of reach of mainstream Mauritius. Why do they not also call for a substantive land reform policy as is the case elsewhere in the world to address the crippling problem of access to land resources faced by economic actors and citizens in the light of the vast concentration of land assets in the country?

There are so many other important causes to defend. Why are no voices being for example raised to urgently demand that the content, quality and international standing of courses and degrees being offered by the plethora of institutions operating in the tertiary education sector are rigorously audited to ensure that they are benchmarked on peer institutions and international norms enabling students to pursue, as is the case for University of Mauritius students, their post graduate studies seamlessly in the best universities abroad.

Exemplary sanction

The picture of Showkutally Soodhun, accompanied by his lawyer (who is himself the object of diverse allegations in the context of the hearings of the Commission on Drug trafficking), leaving the Central CID offices after recording his statement some ten days after threatening that he would have killed the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly epitomizes the double standards and appalling standard of governance of the government.

This, yet again, raises the question of legitimacy of the present government. It also exposes its incapacity to mete out exemplary sanctions on the wayward members of government. What better cause for legitimate protests by Mauritius in its composite diversity than to rally under the slogan ‘Je suis Xavier’ to demand that he immediately steps down as Minister as his irresponsible and dangerous threats have disqualified him from holding office?

Mrinal Roy

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