Heritage City: A Disaster Waiting To Happen

All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed. Third it is accepted as being self evident.

— Arthur Schopenhauer

Why did the Minister of Finance make a provision of 2.7 billion rupees in the budget for the Heritage City project only to turn around about one week later and give his blessing to a blistering report by his principal adviser, which effectively signed the death toll of the same?

Minister Bhadain, who was the architect and main advocate of the project, would like to believe that this 360-degree turnaround happened over three days during which Mr Sanspeur apparently convinced the Minister about the dangers and risks lurking behind what has been described by some as a “pharaonique” real estate project. To say the least, this is a naïve interpretation. The more likely answer is that Pravind Jugnauth abstained from making such an announcement in his Budget Speech because presumably this would have stolen the glow from the rest of his speech and focussed attention on this single issue.

To our mind this was a tactical move and a question of timing more than anything else. In fact his subsequent declaration to the effect that he fully endorses the public stand taken by his principal adviser is a clear vindication of this point. Pravind Jugnauth, along with his advisers of the Ministry of Finance, had already made up his mind regarding the “freezing” of the Heritage City project even before the Budget Speech was delivered.

We have consistently argued that the Heritage City Project would most likely end up in such a twist because there have been fundamental misjudgements and lack of clarity all along the project management process. The opacity of procedures and the frequent flip-flops regarding such important issues as the eventual costs of the built-up products, the amount of electricity or water which would be consumed, the building of access roads, not to mention the other arguments brought up in the famous 22-page (unsigned and undated but substantive) report which has been doing the rounds among stakeholders has consistently surrounded the process with an air of sheer amateurism and fancifulness.

It has been reported that at his recent political bureau meeting Pravind Jugnauth taunted one of his frequent-flyer colleagues to the effect that in spite of numerous vague promises of millions of dollars not a single note had been forthcoming. Whether this is true or not, the final nail in the coffin of the Heritage City project would certainly have been the continuing uncertainties and flimsiness of the financing proposals.

According to its advocates, the ground breaking for the project would have started even as no one had ascertained the sources and the actual costs of financing and eventual financial architecture. The issue is that even if some financial planning and projections have been made in some obscure “officine”, the opacity and lack of visibility among the public at large regarding the commitments which were being thrust on future generations remains a determining factor leading to its present fate.

In short the Heritage City Project has always been a lame animal limping on three legs of political support. Pravind Jugnauth and his advisers having rightly refused to provide the missing leg the animal has finally crashed not without causing some serious casualties — and here we are not only referring to Minister Bhadain but also to the whole cohort of supporters who have been cheering him on in this unviable and unrealistic venture.

First among those, one needs to seriously question the integrity and effectiveness of those high public officials who have given up any sense of public decency and constantly manoeuvred to “adapt” their views to suit the whims of their political bosses. The Leader of the Opposition is rightfully seeking to find out how much this disastrous adventure has already cost the national exchequer and who have been the prominent beneficiaries.

Lessons to draw

It was Machiavelli who said something to the effect that one should never miss the opportunities arising out of a major crisis. At a very basic level this could refer to lessons which must be drawn from a crisis with the hope that the same mistakes would not be repeated in future. In the twist and turns of the Heritage City project, there are indeed many lessons to be learnt. For our purpose we think there are three main ones.

The structural weaknesses of the case notwithstanding a major fault line of this project has been in the approach adopted by its lead architect since the very initiation of the process. Assured of the support of the Prime Minister, Mr Bhadain went on a personal crusade and appropriated the sole ownership for its realization — Mo, Moi, Je. Failing to build a coalition of interests in its support, he instead managed to rapidly alienate most of his colleagues in the Cabinet if not in Parliament. The comeback of the leader of the MSM in the Cabinet has crystallized this lurking opposition and it only needed a lead advocate — a role which Gerard Sanspeur was only too keen to assume.

The second obvious lesson to be drawn is that a new political landscape is clearly emerging in the country. As we have constantly argued, the fact that the leader of the largest party in the government was not in Cabinet was a serious anomaly which can explain at least partially the incoherencies which have singularly marred the actions of this government ever since the last elections.

Pravind Jugnauth does not seem to be doing anything wrong in the way he is slowly but surely imposing his authority within his party as well as in government ever since his comeback. Adversaries as well as allies, not to mention aspiring allies, need to take note. What happened in the latest Cabinet meeting cannot remain inconsequential. It has surely been the “declic” for the transition from Prime Minister-in-waiting to actual Prime Minister. An official announcement about a calendar is now on the cards and should not be a surprise in the coming months or even weeks.

Last but not least, it is imperative that all stakeholders appreciate that for every large investment involving public funds, the clarity and transparency of the process is equally if not even more important than actually securing the financial resources.

In addition to the traditional watchdogs constituted by the press and the official opposition, every citizen having access to the social media now seems to hold a view on everything happening in the country especially when it comes to large projects — indeed whether publicly or privately financed. Under the circumstances it is well-nigh impossible to have unanimity.

However getting at least a “consensus” to support a development scheme which impacts the public in one way or the other is now a significant factor which can impede or support its realisation.

End word: An unsolicited but friendly advice that many would gain to adhere to: when in a hole, stop digging.

Rajiv Servansingh

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