Public policies affecting various sectors are skewed in favour of big business at the expense of the small man. Besides taking back control of the state to ensure that the balance tilts in favour of the people, it is imperative that consumers make appropriate responses so that our consumer instincts do not reduce them to a new form of slavery
Marxists define the state as a dictatorship of the corporate sector, and it is often reduced in its essentials to ‘army men and policemen’. Although the state in Mauritius operates in a capitalist set-up, it has evolved over the years through democratic control into a welfare state. People have come to expect a degree of protection from the state from the dictates of the capitalist system. Though the state continues to project itself as the protector of the lower classes, in actual fact it very often tilts the balance in favour of the capitalists in a number of ways. It does so through the law, by downgrading public institutions or by being indifferent to the plight of the lower classes and the poor.
Enough has been written about the treatment meted out to small planters, SMEs, workers, the homeless and the unemployed that increasingly many sections of society have become aware of, and how they have been marginalized in our society with the collusion of the state and big business. The three examples that follow illustrate in a concrete way the policies of the state towards the lesser privileged of society.
Much attention has been drawn to the urgent need to protect the environment, and several laws have been promulgated by the state, but little is being enforced for a number of reasons. Even worse, the state has been caught on several occasions siding with the destroyers of the environment to safeguard the interests of big business. In so doing, it is unabashedly working against the interests of small enterprises and small food vendors and the common people.
In 2018 it was announced in the budget that ‘the application of an excise duty of Rs 2 per unit on non-biodegradable disposable plastic containers’ would take effect as from 1st February 2019. At a time when we were reminded by the Guardian’s Environment editor Damian Carrington that the average person eats at least 50,000 particles of micro-plastics in a year and breathes in a similar quantity, and when scientists were also telling us that drinking a lot of bottled water drastically increases the particles consumed and that in the future there would be more plastic than fish in the seas, the excise duty on plastics was not doubt a measure to be applauded.
However, when the annex to the budget is examined closely and the regulations are scrutinized, we find that these were in fact intended to protect the corporate sector and to penalize small food vendors and other SMEs. The regulations in the annex make a distinction between a first category (which refers to containers, namely those for the immediate packing of products, including food products), and a second category of non-biodegradable containers. Products in the first category are exempted from excise duty. The regulations also define ‘a container made of plastic, whether non-biodegradable or not, of any shape, with or without lid, and includes a plate, a bowl, cup or tray. A third regulation also exempts from excise duty ‘boxes, cases, crates, food containers, bowls, cups, trays, plates, table ware and kitchenware made up of non-degradable plastics.
These various exemptions favour big business, namely the importers and the supermarkets. For example, those who buy, import or manufacture non-biodegradable products containers on a large scale for packing all sorts of food products are exempted. Even paper cups are exempted when everybody knows that a paper cup is lined with plastic and is extremely difficult to recycle. The big enterprises that use plastic bottles for water or soft drinks are also exempted
The second category which is not exempted refers to those non-biodegradable containers which are ‘used for ready-to-be consumed food products packed for local consumption’. In other words, a person buying a cup of alouda from a vendor has to pay Rs 2 more for the container whereas the same container is exempted when sold in a supermarket. This shows clearly that the state is on the side of big business while consumers, SMEs, food vendors and other small businesses are penalized to favour the big business. There is no level playing field for small businesses and crocodile tears are too often shed on the fate of small enterprises.
We have so far heard very little in terms of concrete and effective measures to help small shops and other retailers who have been providing valuable services to the community as well as employment opportunities to so many for so many decades. They now face fiercer competition from the big corporate groups, which are out to drive out the small shops from the market. Numerous stratagems are being resorted to, one of which is to compel retailers to sell a number of items at a higher price than the supermarket price. This stratagem allows the corporate sector, especially the importer/distributor business groups to win on two counts: first, if the goods placed with the small retailers get sold inspite of their higher prices, the corporate sector reaps the excess profit; second, if consumers turn away from the small retailers because of their higher prices, they’ll end up having to buy the same consumer items from their supermarkets. This is in fact what is sought to be achieved through the discriminatory pricing of the same consumer items applicable, on the one hand, to small retailers and, on the other, to supermarkets.
The other day after purchasing a tube of toothpaste from a shop, I asked the retailer why the price was so high compared with that same toothpaste which is sold in a particular supermarket. He took out his account book and receipts and showed me that the toothpaste had been delivered to him at a price that’s higher than its selling price (to consumers) in the supermarket; it was thus inevitable that he had to sell it at a much higher price than the supermarket. Subsequently I found out that the importer of the toothpaste was not only distributing a number of items goods at many retail outlets a higher price but it was itself the owner of a few supermarkets. It is in these conditions that small retailers and consumers are both being fleeced by the corporate sector without the state being able to provide some protection to SMEs and consumers.
Another factor which works to the advantage of the corporate sector is the downgrading of public institutions; it seems there is a deliberate policy to deprive them of funds, resources and proper management such that they end up becoming rundown. Their inefficiency is actively encouraged to provide justification for the privatization of all kinds of services and to induce the flight of customers away from them. A visit to some primary schools with very small student populations shows that no action is being taken to address the many problems facing these schools. The morale of the staff is very low; parents who can afford a school van move their children to other schools while the poor remained stuck without any sign or hope of improvement in their learning. These issues had been raised and discussed at management meetings at the Ministry of Education in recent months but no action has followed.
Similarly, in our hospitals similar stories are heard almost every day despite the goodwill and dedication of the staff. Our hospitals are understaffed at all levels. A cancer patient who had to travel a long distance to the hospital with great difficulty and with an aching body spent the whole day at the hospital up to 3 p.m. only to learn that her file could not be found and she was given another appointment. Under-staffing and lack of funding have created many soul-destroying conditions in many of the essential services of the state and there is no sign that these issues are being addressed.
This situation is not going to change given the poor economic conditions and management prevailing at the highest levels. This worsening situation can be stopped only if consumers make the effort to rescue the state from the grips of the corporate sector. The small planters, the SMEs, the workers, the self-employed, civil servants and consumers generally have genuine grievances, which result from the capture of the state by the corporate sector. Public policies affecting various sectors are thus skewed in favour of big business at the expense of the small man – whether he is a consumer or a small businessman. Besides taking back control of the state to ensure that the balance tilts in favour of the people, it is imperative that consumers take cognizance of their exploitation and make appropriate responses so that our consumer instincts do not reduce them to a new form of slavery.