I Am Not Smart (II)
smart local governments and a smart populace
Without being unduly pessimist, I am left wondering if we are ever going to behave as a Smart educated people — with Smart central and local governments that take Smart policy decisions — that is commensurate with living next door to the Smart people who will come to occupy all those Smart cities
According to media reports, we have 16 Smart cities lined up — yes indeed 16! — for Mauritius. Given the high cost of accommodation in these Supercities, I daresay that most of us Mauritian citizens will be debarred from living in these places of ‘high civilization’. As for their shops, given the price of some items that can cost the equivalent of a factory worker’s monthly income, most of us can forget them.
Now we are further informed that, to be viable, each one of these smart cities needs to have a population of 100k. Thus my simple arithmetic tells me that we will need to persuade 1.6m aliens to come and grace this land of ours. So be it! But can we really accommodate 2.8m people, more than double current numbers, without tears?
Because once the newcomers settle here, they would need to travel across the land, even if only to visit their friends/relations in other smart cities. If we are not to disappoint them, we will soon have to begin to make our highways and byways smart. With smart pavements, smart roundabouts that don’t turn into lakes at the mere mention of rain, or roads that turn into rivers which necessitate a bridge to cross. Instead of dry taps, we would need a smart water supply 24/7 which is standard for most Europeans. Instead of rubbish strewn all over the place, we would need a smart, clean environment preferably without rabid stray dogs patrolling every road and every beach. I am pretty sure the reader can add a few more examples of his own.
We would generally need to smarten up our infrastructure. From Grand-Bay in the north to Souillac in the south, from Belle Mare in the east to Flic-en-Flac in the west, we would need to upgrade many times over our roads, drains, traffic management and… all those towns and villages that are still wallowing behind in the Third World with a sporadic water supply, a primitive sewerage system and, if we are not careful, interrupted electricity supply in the near future.
Every time I visit Caudan Waterfront, I dream of the day when all our town/village centres would be a copy of it with large, smart tree-lined walkways free from traffic – and traffic fumes and noise! Unless the infrastructural issues are resolved, we will be unable to avoid the harrowing consequences that manifest themselves every time we are visited by the sort of inclement weather that would be considered normal in most civilized countries.
Sine Qua Non
But to achieve smartness, above all, what Mauritius needs is a smart central government, smart local governments and a smart populace — and not smirking smart a…s who think they ‘casse ene grand paquet!’ As TP Saran puts it so succinctly, ‘What we need is not Smart here and Smart there, but a Smart, liveable and environmentally sustainable country’ (MT 26-Feb-2016). Save for some self-important politicians and their acolytes, I have no doubt in my mind that every one of our 1.2m citizens will agree with Mr Saran’s sentiments.
Growing up in the 1940s-50s, my generation knows full well that we used to have a lot more rain than we do now. Besides the statistics are there to support this fact. Yet in those days we never heard of widespread floods occurring with the frequency that they do now.
In the last couple of years alone, we have witnessed severe floods across the country. Even after the murderous one in 2013 which cost 11 innocent lives, a coherent policy remains to emerge to counteract these phenomena. Worse, we continue with the very same policies that are responsible for the inextricable quagmire we find ourselves stuck in. For instance a short walk round Port Louis is sufficient to show that nothing seems to have been done to unblock drains that have been covered over with concrete to facilitate vehicle passage to/from office and private premises.
The Culprits: In common with most ordinary people, my finger is pointed firmly at: (1) primarily at the injudicious, short-sighted policies of successive central governments, (2) the laxity of local government bodies in applying the rules, and (3) the incivility of an undisciplined population.
In the colonial days, only a handful of mainly rich white people lived on the coast ‘pied dans l’eau’. Apart from these, some ex-slaves and later their descendants squatted on what we know as Pas Géométriques to eke out a living by fishing and growing what they could in the backyard. In short, the coast was sparsely populated, with the bulk of the population living in the hinterland.
Since independence, the successive governments have approved a rash of morcellements of marginal land in the coastal areas. Whilst this may have earned billions for the landowners, scant consideration has been given to their impact on the environment. And the effects have been nothing short of an ecological disaster.
Thus in spite of Mauritius being a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, we have witnessed the total destruction of most marshy lands that were found in the coastal regions. Whether it is Flic-en-Flac, Grand-Bay or Pereybere, acre after acre of rain absorbing marshland has been lost to tarmac, concrete and buildings, with inadequate drainage systems to evacuate rainwater. Moreover, thousands of cooling, water-absorbing trees have been felled to make way for concrete buildings, with no policy to replace any of them.
Similar parcelling of land has been allowed inland too. Many plots with no drainage systems at all, and boundary walls that impede all natural rainwater flow. Yet in spite of all the tragedy that has been unfolding, the process seems to go on unabated. Drive anywhere on the island, from north to south or east to west, and you are bound to come across several new morcellements, be it the gated variety or otherwise. The mystery is that, in defiance of basic laws of supply and demand, land prices keep going up and up!
A certain outcome of these wild unplanned parcelling would be hilarious if it were not serious. The drainage is so inadequate that one would be forgiven to think that it did not exist at all. Examples of this poor management of rainwater are everywhere to be seen. Reminiscent of a scene from a Kestone Cops movie, during one cyclone at least, the country saw on prime time TV campement owners in Flic-en-Flac ferrying by boat (yes boat!) food, drinks and other necessities to their tenants.
Local government bodies are supposed to grant building permits and see to it that building norms and conditions are complied with. Sounds wonderful on paper, doesn’t it? But many a citizen will tell you that it took several months to get his building permit approved. That too, in some cases, in spite of POCA and/or ICAC, with the help of the ubiquitous ‘Ti dite’ that is part and parcel of a corrupt and corruptible system.
But once the permit was approved, he was left to get on with it, with hardly a site visit from local council officers. In Flic-en-Flac — where there is a rule of Ground-plus-Two — council workers were once seen ‘destroying’ the third storey of a block of flats, leaving behind an eerie upper shell without doors and windows. It is anybody’s guess what the council inspectors were doing whilst the owner was busy putting up the illegal third level!
Elsewhere people are allowed to put up boundary walls without respecting the 3-feet rule. Worse, in some cases they impinge directly on the highway making some narrow roads even narrower. In parts of every town/village it is impossible for two vehicles to pass by each other. Rather than apply the rules and have the offending walls pulled down, the authorities go for the easy solution, and just impose a one-way system on the motorist so that he ends up driving miles round the block to get to his destination, adding to the noise/environmental pollution in the process. Not to mention the unwelcome effect on his nerves!
A Pakistani friend had been sent to the UK for studies when he was a mere lad, and stayed back after completion. When he was about 40, he decided it was time for a visit to the motherland. Upon his return I asked him how it was. ‘Fantastic!’ he said, ‘the country has moved on and progressed. You should just see the houses; they put our 4-bedroom detached suburban to shame’. I was nodding in admiration when he added this shocker, ‘But when they flush their toilets, the stuff just flows out onto the neighbours’ garden!’
I am afraid that the majority of our own undisciplined Lepep Admirab is not any less selfish. I am sure everyone of us has seen a neighbour diligently sweep the rubbish in front of his house only to throw it in the gutter or the empty land next door. Some people even take a sadistic pleasure in dumping the carcass of their dead pets by the roadside. I once found a dead rotting cat in my dustbin, and I am pretty sure it was a not someone from Chamouny but a neighbour. Walk along any uninhabited side road, and you will find someone has dumped a lorry load of rubble from a building site, or the remains from a textile factory.
Once it used to be the norm to give way to the elderly on the road. Now walk along any high street, and no one will step aside for an old age pensioner. On the contrary, they might knock down the poor old duffer without so much as a’by your leave’. Likewise on buses, we used to stand up and give our seats to women and the elderly. We can just dream of these courtesies now.
But even these pale into insignificance when you hit the road. People drive the wrong way up at you in a one-way street. But if you dare point this out to them, they will shout back whether you are the police with the choice ‘spicy’ words added for free. Very few drivers seem to have read their highway code, so they drive without any regard to road signs, or weather conditions. The speeding statistics and the sad loss of life (34 so far this year!) speak louder than the words I can write.
Space prevents me from giving a fuller litany of the incivility of our countrymen (and women), but I am sure the reader can think of a whole host of these.
What is clear however is this. Before we even begin to contemplate building those 16 Smart cities, we need to smarten ourselves first. Otherwise all those foreign guest-investors may be pushed into thinking that they have moved into a land full of a bunch of backward barbarians.
Yes, it is true that we have today got a lot more people who are educated. Those that my good friend Cooldip describes as having ‘certificat longeur la semaine, but no brains’. I was also once asked this rhetorical question by Keshraj’s brickie, ‘Bhaya, ou kone combien parmi nou bane gradue zote illétré?’ An academic qualification counts for just that if it is not accompanied by a modicum of civilized behaviour. I am sure many of us have watched in horror some smart suit-and-tie guy chucking a bagful of used pampers (what else but classy stuff?) out of the window of his big shiny BMW. Before all the land became occupied, this used to be routine stuff in my part of the world.
Without being unduly pessimist, I am thus left wondering if we are ever going to behave as a Smart educated people — with Smart central and local governments that take Smart policy decisions — that is commensurate with living next door to the Smart people who will come to occupy all those Smart cities.
In fact, when we have destroyed all the greenery, filled our postage stamp of an island with acres of black satanic tarmac and suffocated this green and pleasant land of ours with ugly grey concrete — which will inevitably affect our climate adversely — what will there be left to attract those savvy foreigners to come and live here?
* Published in print edition on 18 March 2016