Is it not high time to trigger a political big bang to free the country from the stifling stranglehold of power politics and finally honour the seminal promises made to the people decades ago?
By Mrinal Roy
Independent Mauritius is 52 this week. More than ever before, this new milestone should be a time for stock taking and an honest appraisal of our performance as a country and a nation over the last decades so that we can zero in on our shortcomings and determine the corrective steps necessary to chart a far better future for all, in line with our loftiest ambition and potential as a nation.
As we survey the country’s pathway since independence the stark reality is that despite the political rhetoric, too many things have gone awry. Those in power seem eons from the lofty ideals, ethos and commitment of service to the people which underpinned the unswerving battle as from 1937 of the stalwarts who fought for the fundamental rights of the downtrodden workers of the sugar industry and the people at large, for improved working conditions for their diligent hard work and for the freedom of the country from colonial rule and the yoke of exploitation to usher a better socio-economic and political order.
It must be said that independence enthused people from all walks of life. There was an enthusiasm and a commitment from the people to contribute to the advancement of the country and the well-being of the nation. Graduates and professionals in diverse fields returning to the country after their studies abroad after independence joined public service as engineers, doctors, economists, teachers or accountants, etc., or the private sector to help man and administer the various public services and manage the economic sectors of the country. The induction of qualified civil servants basically set up the foundations of a competent post-independence government Establishment. How did it all go so wrong?
Political interference in the government decision-making process, nepotism, cronyism and a cohort of political appointees to head the key institutions and companies of the State sounded the knell of meritocracy. Large numbers of the very qualified and talented young Mauritians have therefore opted to work abroad instead of the hassle of battling a decried and flawed system. Large swathes of families are thus coming to terms with this new reality, in the interest of their children’s future.
The country has had a chequered economic performance since independence. The dire economic difficulties of the post-independence period marked by two significant devaluations of the Rupee in 1979 and1981 and a low GDP were followed by a period of sustained economic growth boosted by the windfall revenue of non-reciprocal preferential market access arrangements under the 1975 ACP-EEC Lome Convention and the Sugar Protocol. The end of non-reciprocal trade preferences at the end of 2007 and the Sugar Protocol in October 2009 in the wake of the WTO driven liberalization of trade and the hard reality of a much more competitive market place have dented our export performance.
Total exports thus declined markedly by 16.58 % from Rs 94.776 billion in 2014 to Rs 79.060 billion in 2019. In parallel, the trade deficit increased by some 60 % from Rs 74.733 billion in 2015 to Rs 120.051 billion in 2019. Despite the establishment of new economic pillars in the services sector to shore our declining exports, the deficit in the net exports of goods and services increased from Rs 40.957 billion in 2014 to Rs Rs72.735 billion in 2019 i.e. by some 77%. Similarly, growth has been stunted and ranged between 3.4%-3.6% during the 2013-2019 period. The country is already bracing itself to a lower growth rate forecast of 2.6% in 2020 in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak.
Have the various governments voted to power by the people honoured the seminal promises made to the people at the time of independence and met their hopes and aspirations? These remain largely thwarted. Inequality is widening. Half a century after independence, some 55% or more than 258,000 employees of the private and public sectors earn less than the median income of some Rs 14,000. Some 96% of these employees work in the private sector. They are basically eking out a livelihood from their shoestring income half a century after independence. How can they meet their existential needs? Is this the Mauritius we fought for and promised to the multitude? Such a condemnable situation is not sustainable. Last month Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO pledged $10 billion to fight climate change which he called ‘the biggest threat to our planet’. When will those who have benefitted enormously from the development of the country take cogent actions to significantly reduce such abject inequality?
The essential needs of people are quality healthcare, a secure job which enables them to meet their existential needs, decent housing and quality education for their children as well as leisure facilities. There is a need for a comprehensive reality check. The country boasts of free healthcare, free education and free social welfare coverage. This begs so many burning questions: Are the standards of healthcare and the level of competence to diagnose and treat patients aligned on the best benchmarks prevailing in the best hospitals of the world? Is it not essential to have a regular and thorough quality check and quality assurance system of the healthcare services provided in the country to ensure that it is consistently up to mark?
As regards the education system, the nation was shocked to learn last month that 70% or a large majority of students taking part in SC and GCE O-Level exams do not make the cut to pursue higher studies. In essence this means that the level of basic education of some 70% of our youth is capped below the School Certificate. How can the government not be jolted into urgent corrective actions by such an enormous loss of human capital? All this is simply not on. Is the enormous budget of the social security services of the country used in a cost effective manner?
It is noteworthy that despite lower income levels the post-independence generation of cadres and a broad section of employees had the disposable income and the purchasing power required to invest in a house, a car to commute to work or go on holidays as well as bequeath assets including land to their progeny. In contrast, it is very difficult for a young professional of today to, for example, buy land and build a house from his savings. This is a major step back for the country. Real estate values across the country, fuelled by smart city and other property development projects which allow the promoters to sell a major share of their residential properties to foreigners, have escalated out of reach of large swathes of mainstream Mauritians. Such a situation is denying them the basic right to buy a house or flat or buy land and build a house of their choice.
Among the many social ills afflicting the country, the scourge of drug trafficking needs to be robustly dealt with. It has endured for too long and represents a real threat for the young. It cannot be eradicated from the country by powwowing with the young but by harsher laws aimed at swiftly eliminating this evil trade.
The main factors which have systematically undermined the prospects of the country over most of the past decades have been the quality of the political class, their obsession with power instead of selflessly serving the interests of the people and their poor governance. The country cannot be pulled out of the quagmire it is bogged down in by the present crop of politicians and the present style of governance. When governments are out of their depths as to how to grapple with the daunting challenges faced by the country, they adopt costly populist measures or adopt decried policies detrimental to the interests of the country and the people just to remain in power. Mauritius has come full circle. This situation cannot go on.
Mauritius has everything to succeed as a nation. It is a small country. Many Mauritians have been trained in some of the best universities of the world with an increasing number having also worked and acquired world class professional experience abroad. Many also have their hearts in the right place. Mauritius also has the talented people with the qualities, ethos and intellect necessary to chart the innovative strategy required to turn around the economy.
Is it not therefore high time after decades of makeshift policies and kneejerk strategies which have not worked to reinvent Mauritius for the comprehensive benefit of all? Is it not high time to jettison the present political class as they know no better? Is it not also high time to select and vote for candidates at general elections on the basis of their commitment of selfless service to the people rather than their thirst for power? Is it not high time to overhaul the government Establishment, State institutions and companies to ensure that they are headed and manned strictly on rules of transparency and meritocracy?
Shouldn’t candidates fielded in general elections be a representative sample of the best talents and professionals of the country? Shouldn’t the country benefit from the expertise of the most qualified and talented Mauritians in diverse fields instead of compromising with the dilettante and less able candidates fielded by parties? Shouldn’t the democratic rule be that elected MPs should serve as Minister or Prime Minister for only one term of office? Such a welcome rule would thankfully clear the political landscape of all those who despite being repeatedly rejected by the electorate do not even have the grace to exit.
Is it not therefore high time to trigger a political big bang to free the country from the stifling stranglehold of power politics and finally honour the seminal promises made to the people decades ago?
* Published in print edition on 12 March 2020