Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago
Poor people have enough cause to feel miserable and depressed. One can imagine their feeling at being told at random or in a high-handed manner that they are not poor enough to qualify for any assistance
The main objective of the Public Assistance Department is to relieve destitution. But what is destitution? You certainly know what the word means but legal limitations have been put to it in order to relieve only a certain kind of destitution.
Hon. Koenig related the following incident in council on the 18th of May. A District Officer had told an applicant who was a married woman: “No, we are sorry we cannot assist you although we find that you are ill because you have a husband who is able-bodied and who therefore must work.” She replied: “Yes he is out of work now for many months.” The Officer said to the applicant: “We are very sorry but according to law this cannot be a reason for assisting you from the Assistance funds.” So, according to the officer in question there was no destitution in that case.
Rightly enough, Hon. Koenig did not rest satisfied and he wrote to the Public Assistance Commissioner whose Deputy answered him telling him that the interpretation of the law given by the District Officer was definitely bad and that the policy of the Department was to assist cases of destitution which were the consequence of prolonged unemployment.
Well, that was a second official interpretation of destitution. A third officer might as well have his own definition. Is it any wonder then that there is so much chaos and confusion in the Public Assistance Department? The Department has yet, it appears, to find a standard yardstick to measure destitution. It is a pity that such should be the case. Poor people have enough cause to feel miserable and depressed. One can imagine their feeling at being told at random or in a high-handed manner that they are not poor enough to qualify for any assistance.
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The Public Assistance Department is a specialized department now. Social Welfare became a distinct department on 1st July 1953. We have now before us the report of the Public Assistance Department from the time of the reorganisation to the end of 1954. Let us see what the report says about the main activities.
The methods by which the Department relieves destitution are mainly three (a) the grant of outdoor relief (b) the grant of indoor relief in Infirmaries and Orphanages, and (c) the operation of the Old Age Pension scheme. All the case work performed by the Local Assistance Officers at the various centres and sub-centres is directly supervised by the District Officers who are themselves assisted by 38 Public Assistance Local Advisory Committees.
The total number of applications that the Department had to consider in 1954 was 7,003 out of which 1,815 were rejected and 282 remained outstanding at the end of December, 1954. We are informed that there has been no increase in the scale rates operative since June, 1953, but a more generous discretionary allowance is given in cases of prolonged illness.
There are fourteen charitable institutions approved by Government which provide free board and lodging to infirms and orphans in need of indoor treatment. The present subsidy is Rs1.10 per day per inmate, irrespective of age. We note with great relief and satisfaction that the rule that a person, particularly a minor, is admitted in an infirmary or orphanage of his own religious faith is strictly adhered to.
The maximum rate of Rs 20 per month for old-age pensions has been in force since the 1st July, 1955. Applications for old-age pensions are dealt with on the same lines as outdoor relief cases. The same staff attend to both categories of applications. During the year under review the Department had to consider 3,523 applications for old age pensions out of which 223 were rejected and 148 remained outstanding at the end of December 1954.
It is a little known fact that the Department grants reliefs in kind also. Such relief takes the form sometimes of flannel underwear and blankets and sometimes of spectacles and crutches. The report adds that blankets are issued every two years and flannel underwear on doctors’ prescriptions.
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It is clear how an all-important social work the Public Assistance Department has to perform in an official way. May we add also what a delicate piece of work it is? One would expect the people working in that Department to use their intelligence and tact to give satisfaction to the unfortunate members of the Mauritian community who have recourse to them. But alas! It is too often that we receive complaints about this department.
We have already told our readers how two delegations of destitutes came to our office to tell us their tales of suffering and misery. In despair they knock at any door in the hope of getting some relief. One has only to read Debates No 15 of 1956 of the meeting of Friday the 18th of May, to see how deputies of every shade of opinion are moved by the suffering and treatment of the poor of every country. When we find people like Bissoondoyal, Mohamed, Ramgoolam and Koenig raising their voices in unison against the Public Assistance Department, it only means that the public is not receiving a square deal at the hands of the Dept.
The Public Assistance Department is growing by the side of its twin-department, the Social Welfare Department. And these two departments are rubbing shoulders with the Labour Department and its adjunct – the Employment Registration Bureau. Housed as they are under the same roof, these four departments could do a lot with some co-operation. They could find and provide work to able-bodied people and, failing this, they could relieve destitution and instil some happiness into the lives of the poor. Why should government departments on which so much is spent and from which so much is expected prove to be so sorely disappointing?
It is only by tackling the problem of destitution and the problem of unemployment together that some real progress can be made.
* Published in print edition on 13 July 2018