The should realize that they have all the power to protect their environment for themselves and future generations and no power, money, bureaucracy or political force is strong enough to resist their will for a fair and just society
Decisions taken – whether it is at the level of the private sector, government or local government – affect people’s lives. This is why it is becoming increasingly important and urgent to incorporate quality of life issues in the broader policy agenda and in our planning and more than ever build the organisational capacity of our citizens to ensure that their welfare and well being are not being trampled upon by property developers and the authorities.
In our local parlance, the word ‘development’ is viewed positively because it implies benefits for all citizens as it enhances their quality of life. Too often this is not so in practice, and the term development is used to drive the particular need and greed of property developers, oblivious of the nefarious consequences of their ‘development’ projects for our citizens.
This is not something that is peculiar to Mauritius. It is happening all over the world and it explains to a great extent the protest movements in favour of sustainable development and the battles of many NGOs, citizens individually and within groups, to safeguard the aesthetics and serenity of their environment and their neighbourhoods. Peter Rees, former chief planner of London, said: ‘We should not trust the bank with property or the property developers with money.’ In London, with foreign investments pouring in from the Middle East or Asia, citizens have had to put up a strong resistance to property developers that are disfiguring several areas of the city.
Property developers and the spirit of the law
In Mauritius, too, we are all too familiar with property developers capitalizing on the positive meaning of development, but trampling on the interests of local communities and seeking to undermine not only the latter’s quality of life but also their economic existence. The numerous cases before the Environment Tribunal reflect the on-going battles between citizens against those who flout both the letter and the spirit of the law.
With the location of supermarkets on major roads aimed at gobbling up small shops, causing traffic jams and undermining local trade, on the other hand prime agricultural land is being transformed into business, commercial and residential premises for foreign residents. Meanwhile, the country continues to rely on imports for its basic food needs while the authorities pay lip service to our food security. And as more of these residential apartments shoot up from the ground, owned by absentee foreigners, we are creating more zombie neighbourhoods.
Concern about this deteriorating state of affairs has been voiced hundreds of times, but elicits little response from government. In country after country, one sees capitalists trying to outdo each other in terms of wealth accumulation, unmindful of the interests of the country, of the wider public. They are not perhaps even conscious that they continue to inflict such damage on the lives of other people and, even worse, they do so in collusion with the people in authority to whom we have entrusted the stewardship of our public goods.
Let us take an example from Port Louis to illustrate the ignoble aims of property ‘developers’, the poor design in road construction and public infrastructure by the authorities. One remembers too well that one of the ideas behind the construction of the Caudan Waterfront, itself a miniature replica of the apartheid Cape Town Waterfront, was to draw the tourist business in Port Louis to itself with shops, craft centres, restaurants and cinema, luring tourists to spend their day and their money in Caudan, thus depriving the sellers at the Central Market and other shops and restaurants around from part of their normal tourist business. When a shop in Caudan Waterfront downs shutters after more than fifteen years in business, one wonders if it has really succeeded in appropriating to itself from others the tourists’ earnings it once contemplated.
We all know that Port-Louis has never integrated its suburbs to make them living neighbourhoods. Moreover, the major reason for the decline of the City in recent years has been the flight of its middle class to other towns and localities. Today, even shoppers who still flock to Port-Louis are appalled by the state of its major roads and pavements that have become major public risks. At the least downpour, the Caudan Waterfront gets deserted; so is the town, too, because of its roads having become too risky with the poor drainage system. Walking down Sir Seewoosagur Street makes one wonder whether, in a few decades, all the ground floors of buildings would not be turned into basements as each road repair raises the road surface level a few inches higher. As for the pavements along the Street (and in some other streets too), they are being transformed into rugged steps that can casually send unwary pedestrians to the Casualty Department of Jeetoo Hospital.
One major flaw of our infrastructure planning has been the absence of a proper mechanism for monitoring the impact of road traffic. The development of Flic en Flac into a major seaside resort led to congestion on the La Louise – Palma road, car accidents, and the installation of numerous speed breakers until the Sodnac – Beau Songes road was constructed. Although the link road from Sodnac to Palma did not pass through the major part of the nearby village, the traffic became a nuisance for many people with houses near these roads and a major risk to the security of students going to the nearby college. In the future the residents who suffered from such nuisance should be relocated and given proper compensation.
Even today approval of building permits, particularly commercial premises and apartment blocks by the authorities rarely factor in their impact on the traffic flow in the area and how these will affect the serenity of residential areas. Similar short-sightedness has led to the construction of high-rise and commercial buildings along Phoenix – Sodnac road without proper consideration of its impact on road traffic. And how obstructive they will be of natural water flows from heavy rains from the nearby hillside.
The few examples cited above do not in any way suggest the absence of proper planning overall. Its deleterious consequences, fortunately so far, are limited to only a few localities. Poor planning has become the standard for infrastructure development. We are not going to delve into the factors responsible for the present state of affairs but their inescapable consequences are there for everyone to see. Morcellement permits are granted for a thousand residential plots with only a puny strip as green space, without even a football ground or space for a primary school or other amenities. Ultimately residents will encroach on the football ground of the neighbouring village while property developers fatten their wallets and share part of it in the financing of elections. Future governments would have to shoulder the responsibility of providing these necessary amenities.
Even when public officials and technicians at various levels anticipate problems and make great efforts to deal with them at source, their advice is often ignored or taken up only when there is public pressure. Engineers at the Ministry of Public Infrastructure had objected to the introduction of certain oversized vehicles in the island but their advice was ignored and today these vehicles constitute a daily threat to people in many neighbourhoods. They speed up on both motorways and along narrow roads in villages and towns, damaging roads and bridges in the process. When Bagatelle Dam was being constructed, following public protest, the authorities at least made arrangements for these lorries working day and night carrying stones to use an alternative road in the sugar cane fields. But today this requirement is no longer enforced so that oversized vehicles on roads have become a daily threat to the lives of the citizens living in this area.
Gimmicks for commercial and PR exercises
Recently, the construction of a major commercial and residential complex has been announced in glossy brochures, with parks ostensibly open to all to emphasize the inclusiveness of the project. It is obvious that it has to be opened to the public for, the ‘developers’ must have realised that it cannot be sustainable if it is gated. But has the property ‘developer’ or the District Council given consideration to how the traffic flowing to this new complex would affect the neighbourhoods? Have they built alternative roads, which connect directly to the motorway or would they expect the upcoming traffic to use the existing public roads such as Côte d’Or road to the detriment of the inhabitants of these areas?
These roads should not be enlarged to increase the flow of traffic. It would be a nuisance to the villagers. Alternative roads linked to the motorway should be constructed. Otherwise, they would destabilize communities, create noise pollution, disturb the sleep patterns of the inhabitants and impair the ability of students to concentrate optimally in their studies. Their brochure itself seems to reflect glaringly their indifference to what happens outside their project. The public as well as the authorities should not blindly buy the publicity around the building complex which are the usual gimmicks for commercial and public relations exercises.
There is no hope that property ‘developers’ with major projects for capitalizing the land will have any consideration or will make an effort to maintain the serenity of neighbourhoods outside their project. It is left to the authorities to make sure that the well-being of people who have lived in those areas for long are not sacrificed on the altar of cupidity of a few. The people living in the neighbourhoods or elsewhere should remain vigilant and alert and ready to fight to safeguard the peacefulness of their villages for ultimately they and their children would pay the consequences of inaction now and in the future. They should also realize that they have all the power to protect their environment for themselves and future generations and no power, money, bureaucracy or political force is strong enough to resist their will for a fair and just society.