By S. Modeliar
It is high time that politics and religion exit from the thorny issue of squatters. Either we are committed to the rule of law or we allow a gang of desperados to hold this country to ransom
The issue of squatters is not new in Mauritius. It is endemic in our socio-political system. Who is a squatter? It refers to a person who settles on the land of another person or on public land without any legal authority to do so, or without acquiring a legal title. There are many cases in Mauritius where people have invaded State lands under the passive eyes of the authorities. Once these persons have established themselves on those lands, with some having been able to build a small mansion, it has proved difficult to dislodge them from those public lands.
Invading public land or private land without the lawful authorization of the owners thereof is blatantly illegal. If a private individual’s land is illegally invaded the owner takes immediate legal steps to have the squatter or trespasser removed. This is the lawful and civilized way of securing one’s own legitimate right to one’s property. This is the rule of law in a civilized society. The initiative to take action must come from the legitimate owner of the land; in the case of public land this would be the appropriate State authority.
State lands belong to the public domain and therefore belong to the people of Mauritius. The government is the custodian of those lands on behalf of the people. For too long, for far too long, successive governments, irrespective of their political philosophy or colour of their parties, have closed their eyes on that scourge and have allowed people to illegally invade pubic lands and later attempt, through campaigns in the media or with the help of private or religious associations, to claim legitimate ownership to these lands that were illegally occupied. That technique has been used successfully by many unfortunately with, if not the complicit assistance, then at least the silence and inaction of successive governments and political parties. By not taking immediate action against the squatters and by legalizing their illegal occupation these successive governments have legitimized a system that opens the door to an illegal acquisition of public lands by many whereas those who are scrupulously following the rule of law take a life time to own a piece of property and even then they are heavily taxed both by the local authorities if they are urban residents and by mad ministers of the central government who impose things like the National Residential Property Tax. Is that fair?
Of course justifications like the needy have to be helped will be invoked. There is no doubt that the needy have to be helped but the help to be extended to these people must be encapsulated in a legal and rationalized mechanism. As it is whenever any government requires lands over which squatters have been allowed to live for years there is uproar. Invoking their own moral turpitude that stems from their illegal occupation these squatters will use threats, electoral blackmail, religious arguments and ethnic considerations to oppose any move by the government to repossess the lands illegally being occupied. Poverty and extreme poverty will cause people to resort to extreme measures to obtain some of the basic amenities of life. There is no doubt that many of the squatters are or were in a real desperate situation. This is not always the case though.
The squatter issue is endemic in our society and strong measures and even stronger leadership are required to take the bull by the horns and start dealing with the problem. No squatter has any right, still less a constitutional right, to illegally occupy State lands or private lands. This is the paradigm on which any energetic measures should be premised. If the government requires the lands for public purpose projects then nothing should prevent the government from going ahead to reclaim those illegally occupied lands immediately. Makeshift short-term solutions should be made available to the real needy people. We say short-term because a census of the really needy ones should be carried out by government so as to allocate a decent housing to them. Even if the government does not require the land immediately, measures should be taken to put an end to the illegal occupation but in such cases some time may be allowed for this to happen. Disciplinary action should be taken against officials of the appropriate central and local government authorities who do not report such illegal occupation as soon as it occurs.
A rational census should be carried out across the country to determine how many really needy squatters are illegally occupying State lands. The results might be surprising. There are many squatters who are mere opportunists and join the bandwagon of the really needy ones to add to their greedy basket. The Leader of the Opposition Paul Bérenger is right when he mentioned this fact in his weekly press conference.
No government can afford to simply react to the issue of squatters when isolated cases are raised in the press. A most comprehensive and rational study of all State lands squatted on, on all lands that have been legitimately ceded to squatters and of all lands that are still virgin lands in the sense that they have not yet been claimed by squatters, should be carried out. Those who have been allowed to stay on State lands should be made to pay a fee as lessees of those lands to the State depending on their means and also on the value of the property. These squatters are not owners of the State lands. They can only be lessees. Lessees who have been given the right to occupy Pas Geometriques pay a rent to government and now they have to pay a campement tax. Why should squatters who can afford to pay a fee to the State get away with it?
It is high time that politics and religion exit from the thorny issue of squatters. Either we are committed to the rule of law or we allow a gang of desperados to hold this country to ransom.
* Published in print edition on 12 August 2010