Poor governance on diverse fronts continues to take a heavy toll and undermines the future. A cursory survey of the past years depicts a sorry state of affairs
By Mrinal Roy
For some time now, the Prime Minister has been on an election campaign mode despite the fact that there has been no official announcement as to the date of the forthcoming general elections as yet. Every official function including invitations to socio-cultural or religious functions is being used by the PM to tediously tom-tom about the same litany of government achievements and multiply his pleas to the electorate to grant him a second mandate despite the fact that the electorate did not give him a mandate to be PM in the first place. He was nominated PM without the legitimacy of a formal choice and plebiscite by the people through general elections.
Under these circumstances it would certainly be unseemly for the PM to delay the general elections when the National Assembly will stand dissolved on 21 December 2019. Thus, power has to be returned back to the people to enable them to chose and elect through general elections a government and a Prime Minister of their choice. This sovereign choice is the sole and unalienable prerogative of the people which cannot be usurped by anyone.
Trust is a key element of that choice but intellect, vision, probity, commitment of service to the people, altruism as well as the ability to be an unwavering and fair arbiter of public interest are key drivers of this choice. The political history of the country is littered with so many aspiring PMs and incumbent governments who have failed to win the trust and rally the support of the majority of the electorate at general elections.
In short, the post and role of a PM in a country is too important to be attributed without the formal choice and endorsement of the people through the ballot box at general elections. The government led by a competent PM must not only be able to put the country on an innovative and robust pathway of inclusive socio-economic development but also be able to unswervingly uphold and safeguard public interest as well as ensure that the continued improvement in the quality of life of the people remains at the centre of government actions and policies.
Government rhetoric and the daily inept propaganda on national TV at public expense cannot mask the deteriorating fundamentals of the country. Traditional sectors such as sugar cane and textile and even tourism are facing dire difficulties in a more competitive market place. The diverse emerging pillars of the economy in the services sector such as financial services, Information and Communications technology (ICT), Business Process Outsourcing, healthcare, tertiary education or the ocean economy, etc., are yet to become robust new engines of growth of the country and supplant the faltering traditional sectors of the economy.
Thus, despite promises of an economic miracle and the conversion of the country into a high income economy, growth has been stunted and stuck within a 3.6% to 3.8% range during the 2015-2018 period. Various key economic indicators are in the red. The external balance continues to deteriorate owing to a worsening balance of trade. Desperate to boost growth by every means, very generous fiscal incentives amounting to billions of Rupees of tax revenue forfeited by the State have been granted since 2015 to the promoters of smart city projects. In contrast, private sector investment as a percentage of GDP has stagnated in 2017 and 2018. The upshot is an economy which is lopsided and inordinately skewed towards property development and smart cities projects. Apart from being very lucrative for the promoters, it has limited positive fallouts for the economy at large.
The IMF Executive Board has thus concluded in its April 2019 assessment of the country that the ’public sector debt target of 60 percent of GDP for FY2020/21 is unlikely to be met’. Without fiscal consolidation beginning with the next budget for FY2019/20, it is forecast to reach a whopping Rs 375 billion i.e. 67.8% of GDP by 2020 and Rs 395.46 billion in 2021. The IMF has thus urged the authorities to pursue prudent policies to strengthen macroeconomic and financial fundamentals.
These adverse economic realities as we approach the end of the government mandate cannot be swept under the carpet or masked by the high rankings of the country in diverse performance indices in principally Africa. It is the people who will have to foot the bill of the government’s fiscal and other largesse. We must remember that the bulk of fiscal revenue is obtained from VAT, excise and taxes on goods and services paid by mainstream Mauritius which from latest figures available reap 64% of tax revenue whereas corporate tax represent only some 14% of tax revenue. Such an iniquitous fiscal system further widens inequality.
The performance of the government must also be assessed on the soundness of its decisions in running the affairs of the country and in addressing the core problems facing various sectors of the economy and their stakeholders. For example, it is evident to all that through sheer ineptitude, the small planters of the sugar cane industry continue to be shortchanged as regards their promised shareholding and fair revenue from the various ventures of the sugar cane cluster using their share of their sugar cane byproducts. They have been callously left high and dry forcing thousands to abandon their lands after diligently contributing to the advancement of the sugar industry for generations.
Costly prestige projects
Government performance is also determined by the judicious manner government gets the priorities of the country right against a backdrop of scarce financial resources. Costly prestige projects in the PM’s constituency have taken their toll on public finances. The Côte-d’Or multisport complex which was to be used for the Indian Ocean Island Games scheduled from 19- 28 July 2019 is now expected to cost a whopping Rs 4.7 billion which includes a disconcerting Rs 1.9 billion for a football stadium and an athletic track. Owing to delays caused by piling and soil improvement works which had to be carried out in the light of geological tests on the site, government decided as a fall back solution to upgrade and renovate 18 sporting facilities at a cost of an additional Rs 732 million.
An additional Rs 417.5 million is to be used for the preparation of the athletes for the games. The total costs for the Island Games are thus expected to exceed Rs 5.84 billion. A colossal Rs 4.7 billion outlay for a multisport complex in Côte-d’Or (amounting to more than the net revenue of Rs 3.83 billion of the sugar sector in 2017/18) which is not easily accessible by public transport and is far from the main urban residential areas obviously raises legitimate questions as to the viability of the complex financed principally from public funds.
Government expenses have to be responsible and viable. However, political leaders never learn. There is now glib government talk of extending the Metro Express to Côte-d’Or again at public expense. Seriously, is this a priority in the larger context of an eventual extension of the Metro commuting system?
Similarly, the implementation of the Safe City project without a fundamental debate about its rationale, modus operandi and robust safeguards to protect individual rights at a cost of some Rs 16 billion spread over time and using some 4000 cameras in more than 2000 locations is a costly and direct encroachment on privacy and individual freedom and liberties. This is the more galling as it is shrouded in opacity. What is the cost benefit of such an extravagant project?
It smacks of a disquieting Big Brother mindset and opens a Pandora’s box of potent objections at a time when decried intrusions on personal liberties and rights such as the government use of facial recognition technology are vigorously contested by citizens abroad. In fact, San Francisco is on track to be the first US city to ban its use by police and other agencies in response to a growing backlash against an invasive technology intruding on individual rights and liberties. Is it not high time to have a national debate on such a controversial and costly project insidiously hatched behind our backs?
The costly Safe City project also focuses attention on the government’s patent inability to get its priorities right. At a time when people are encouraged to eat more vegetables and fruits as part of a healthy and balanced diet, would it not have been far more important for the country to invest in the required marketing and cold storage infrastructure to improve the market supply chain of vegetables and fruits through the application of modern management methods?
The twin objectives of such a project should be to offer dedicated regional storage facilities and sales platforms near the main vegetable growing areas of the country to vegetable and fruit producers to enable them to maximize their revenue by cutting down waste and marketing their produce (outside the rapacity of intermediaries) directly to wholesalers and other buyers.
More also needs to be done in terms of incentives to encourage them to produce in greenhouses (which are costly) and use modern technologies to protect them against the vagaries of the weather worsened by climate change. Vegetable and fruit growers are among the most entrepreneurial economic actors of the country who need to benefit from every support for the common good. Is this not a much more important priority for the country than the Safe City intrusion on our fundamental liberties?
Promoting student learning instead of dogmas
Despite the government rhetoric about free education up to tertiary level, there are already widening chinks in the education system. Instead of benchmarking the education system on the best standards prevailing in the world in a context of evolving learning trends, government has regionalized admissions in a misguided bid to thwart competition. The elimination of ranking causes students of mixed abilities to be in the same class across the country. Do the teachers pitch the level of learning on the average student, the brightest or the slowest?
Such a system hobbles the potential of students instead of maximizing it. It is a lose-lose system for all. In a country with limited resources, ranking enables teachers to work with students with relatively homogeneous abilities in schools and help them maximize the full potential of their intellect. Is it more important to maximize the full potential of the country’s students through the pursuit of excellence or to rabidly uphold the dogma of regionalization at the expense of a brighter future for students? Are we not penalizing our brightest students? Should there not be a regional ranking?
The other fundamental flaw of this daft system is that apart from a few, the standard of education in most schools and colleges is below par. Successive governments over the past decades have been unable to upgrade and benchmark the level of education across the country to comparable standards. Such an uneven education system does not promote quality education. No government can force parents to admit their children in sub standard schools.
The upshot is that more and more parents who live in areas where there are subpar schools or colleges and who can afford it are opting to admit their children in private schools. Such a trend does not promote nation building. What is the wider benefit of free education if apart from the few students living in areas endowed with top schools and colleges, more and more of the bright boys and girls of the country opt for private education if their parents can afford it? Is it not time to fundamentally review a flawed education system to ensure that it rallies the young of the country in a congenial learning process which bonds the nation rather than breeds fracture?
Poor governance on diverse fronts therefore continues to take a heavy toll and undermines the future. A cursory survey of the past years depicts a sorry state of affairs. It lists out some of the many issues and facts on which government will be judged at the time of the forthcoming general elections. The die is cast. It is therefore high time to let the people decide.
* Published in print edition on 17 May 2019