‘SMART’ Social Housing?


The level of trust in politicians and political leaders across the board worldwide has come down so much and so rapidly during the year of the Covid pandemic that whatever they undertake is looked at with the same mistrust and suspicion. Many governments’ record in the handling of the pandemic has indeed been abysmal, and everywhere the common man is reeling under the burden of unmet basic needs and rising debt, and a great fear about the future regarding their livelihoods. Because the next questions that crop up are: where has all the money disbursed over the pandemic period gone (i.e. into which big wig’s pocket) and where will money that is needed come from?

In a globalised world, no country is an island, and we do not escape that logic either though geographically we are an island. And therefore the same concerns arise, with the local context providing the material background to flag them. One of the latest projects of the government concerns social housing. En passant, it is relevant to point out that in 1987, when Minister Ramesh Jeewoolall was in charge of the Ministry of Housing, a debt to the tune of Rs 22 million was written off in favour of the housing units in the cités, which were each put on sale to their owners at a nominal price of Rs 1000.

Social housing is a major issue in all countries, from Australia to America. Each country is grappling with the problem by devising innovative schemes. The one that has come up in Mauritius for the construction of 12,000 units literally bypasses the two institutions that have been constructing such units as well as for the middle class over the years: the NHDC and the MHC respectively, which have the necessary human resources to carry out such projects. Nothing is perfect – even in the private gated colonies that have sprung up – in respect of both infrastructure both outside and inside the buildings, but at least there is some sort of a transparent process and institutional mechanisms to look at any matters arising by way of complaints from the residents or the public.

 What is being proposed is the setting up of a private company, New Social Living Development Ltd (NSLD) to implement the project. With unanswered questions in the National Assembly about the lack of access to information about the Safe City project by the Director of Audit, there is justified apprehension that a similar scenario awaits this latest project which professionals in the matter estimate will cost nearly Rs 30 billion, on the basis that each unit will cost Rs 2.5 M. Setting aside the value of the land which will be Crown Land, this puts the construction cost at Rs 12-15 Billion!

 There is speculation whether, as in the case of the Safe City project or emergency procurement of medical material during the pandemic, the provider or providers have already been identified and, further, whether they will have a contract that contains privacy clauses that will not allow information to be made available to the Director of Audit, to be made available in the public domain. After all, this will be public, taxpayer money isn’t it?

Is the Safe City model going to become the prevailing one for future public projects, where tender exercises are absent, there is already pre-selection of contractor(s), and legal obstacles inserted into the contract (s) to prevent access to the details of the binding agreements? In other words, is a culture of state secrecy being installed in matters which have no direct connection with the security of the country? To say the least, if this is happening, it is a most condemnable and worrying trend.

* Published in print edition on 16 April 2021

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