Public Assistance in Mauritius – In theory and practice

Mauritius Times: 60 Years Ago

Poverty in a modern society where nobody can be the “captain of his soul” or “the master of his fate” is not an individual affair, but a national responsibility

In Mauritius it is the Assistance Department which is responsible for administration of poor Relief and the Assistance Commissioner, who is the Head of the Department, is charged with the direction and control of all matters relating to the award of relief to the poor and needy. The duties of the Department are laid down in Regulations made under the Poor Law Ordinance of 1902 to which, with the passage of time, several amendments have been brought.

We learn that the new appellation of Assistance Department has been given to this service of ours with a view to bringing it in line with the trend of developments in the conception and treatment of poverty as a social problem in all civilized countries.

Until 1937 the doling out of relief was the responsibility of the Protector of Immigrants but owing to lack of an adequate personnel the bulk of the work of distributing relief to the poor in the rural areas was entrusted to the medical officers and dressers of dispensaries. This system left much to be desired as it was not without danger of abuses arising from the fact that the medical officer had little time to devote to enquiries and detailed examinations of cases and therefore had to leave everything to the dressers.

In 1937 when the Labour Department came into existence as a result of the labour unrest in the colony, the “Poor Law” merged with this department. We can still remember the interest Mr Wilkinson, the then Labour Commissioner, took in Poor Law cases and the sympathy with which he would listen to representatives made to him about any Poor Law cases. It must in all fairness be also mentioned that he had in Mr Hazareesingh an able assistant who was always anxious to bring reforms to the Poor Law system of Mauritius. Poor Law cases then were supposed to be treated, each according to its own merits, but in practice the real poor of the villages seldom got, if any, an adequate relief. Very seldom two identical cases received the same relief. It was during the commissionership of Mr Wilkinson that the Poor Law committee system was introduced. Under this system, every area where there was a Poor Law office, a Poor Law Committee composed of local people was appointed and the area officer was made to seek the advice of the Committee.

This system, while it helped to “democratise” to a certain extent the administration of relief by giving the committee members opportunity to make available to the officer their knowledge of the circumstances of each case brought before the Committee, had one serious disadvantage of leaving the way open to pressure upon members from reasons other than pure necessity e.g. political or communal feelings.

However the credit of bringing uniformity in the treatment of cases as far as this is possible, must go to Miss Darlow, a trained social worker from England who came in this country on a three year-contract. She introduced the scale system whereby each case is assessed according to a guiding scale laid down by regulations. The Poor Law committee has been retained and members can still exercise an indirect check on the investigations of the investigating officer and the veracity of what he records in every case.

Judged purely from the organisational point of view, the machinery for assisting the poor in this country looks perfect. But unfortunately judging from the numerous complaints we have received and from what we hear every day about this department, it seems to be one of the worst run departments of Government. We hear of complaints about delay in the disposal of cases, complaints about rough language used by some officers in dealing with their clients. Of course there are some good officers who are conscientious and who treat the poor with consideration and respect but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the majority of them.

These officers have yet to realise that their clients are human beings and that because of their Dickensian Beadle mentality and that the absence of the human touch in their relationships with their clients, the whole work of the department smacks of indifference, callousness, and absence of humanism, so reminiscent of the days of the Poor Law in England. They have yet to realise that poverty in a modern society where nobody can be the “captain of his soul” or “the master of his fate” is not an individual affair, but a national responsibility. They have yet to appreciate the fact that a worker after having given the best of himself to society, after having contributed his bit to the prosperity of the country by his labour should expect from society, in the event of illness or incapacity from work, not only pecuniary assistance but that  consideration and respect which is due to every citizen of a civilized country.

Perhaps also they have yet to realise that after all they are public servants and that without the poor, their jobs would not exist.


* Published in print edition on 21 September 2018

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