Interview: Vasantt Jogoo
should the abandonment of the CCGT project become a major pre-condition for an MMM-MSM alliance”
‘Political parties come to power and are booted out, but big business thrives. It keeps on benefitting from increasing incentives from successive governments’
Dr Vasantt Jogoo, a freelance consultant in sustainable development, with a special interest in low-carbon development and land-use strategies, has degrees in geography, urban planning and environmental management. Prior to joining the Commonwealth Secretariat, London, where he held the position of Adviser and Head in the Small States, Environment and Economic Management Section, he served the African Development Bank as its Lead Environmentalist. He also chaired the Maurice Ile Durable (MID) Fund Committee and served as Chairman of the Mauritius Oceanography Institute for a couple of months. We take up with him, in this week’s interview, a number of issues which have come up in recent weeks: environmental protection, the incestuousness of mainstream parties with big business, the tug of war opposing DPM Ivan Collendavelloo and Paul Bérenger, the concept of national interest, etc…
Mauritius Times: Have you noticed that it’s mostly what is referred to in the country as “small parties” – “les groupuscules” — which are bringing up serious issues affecting our present and the future in relation to the environment, urbanisation, the incestuous relationship between government and big business – “l’affairisme du gouvernement” as they call it, etc. We rarely get to see such initiatives coming from the so-called “mainstream” parties, whether they are in or out of power. Why is that so?
Vasantt Jogoo: The small parties are formed to promote a particular cause and, in other cases, have splintered off the mainstream parties. They may develop around a particular leader or aim to defend specific issues. They are generally ideological.
On the other hand, the bigger parties do not support any specific ideology. They revolve around a loose collaboration of interests whose main objective is to win the next election. Though the interests may be diverse and conflicting, the objective is to capture the widest possible spectrum of the electorate. This gives them the flexibility to adapt to circumstances and serve vested interests without appearing to go back on electoral promises once in power.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the smaller parties constitute the ideal platform for like-minded people to come together, discuss, analyze, and produce coherent positions on issues of national importance. Lalit, Resistans ek Alternativ and Muvman Premye Me of Jack Bizlall produce some of the best analytical discourses on society.
The smaller parties may not receive high percentages of votes at election time, but they are still useful in our political system. First, they provide the bigger parties with well thought-out ideas, which they can often adopt. They can also challenge the larger parties on certain issues forcing them to respond and adapt to their challenges. Resistans ek Alternativ and its stand on ethnic representation is a case in point. Second, they provide the “five cents” necessary for a bigger party to complete its rupee. In my view, a coalition of a big party and a couple of smaller parties can win general elections.
* As regards the serious issues that these parties take up, we can understand there is a trade-off to be made, for instance, between the economic development – meaning growth, FDI, jobs, etc -, and environmental protection. Is this a false trade-off or do you think that mainstream parties have generally been responsible by choosing to tread the middle path?
Not even the middle path! This government has practically rescinded the country’s commitment to pursue a sustainable development path and promote its transition to a greener economy. Frankly, the concept of “trade-off” between economic development and environmental protection is outdated after more than half a century of sustainable development policy making. It has been amply demonstrated that a clean and protected environment is an economic asset. Strong environmental regulation does not deter economic growth, though in the short-term some jobs may be lost. However, in the long-term, investments in environmental protection promote technology upgrades that enable industries to compete more effectively in the global market.
The government has more or less given up on environmental program delivery. Not only we have one of the worst performing ministers of environment in our history, but we have a government that does not hesitate to tweak environmental regulations to serve its short-term objectives. A metro express cannot be described as a “modern” undertaking when the basic principles of project design and implementation have not been respected.
What is happening in Agalega is another example of short-sighted and manipulative attempt to trade-off effective and long-term environmental management in favour of development goals. In the process, the government is doing a great disservice to Mauritius-India relations, in view of the general negative public perception of Indian involvement in Agalega and a subtle rise in anti-India feeling. Such a situation could have been avoided if the project had gone through a process of public disclosure and consultation. As Paul Bérenger remarked, there is no indication that India has any “evil” intention on Agalega. Any construction project generates impacts and the formulation of a publicly disclosed Contractor’s Environmental and Social Management Plan would have helped a lot.
* Take the issues of wetlands and the decreasing areas of public beaches: it’s Resistans ek Alternativ and the Aret Kokin Nu Laplaz (“Stop Stealing our Beaches”) movement that are alerting public opinion and bringing these issues up for public discussion. How do you react to that? Are these pro-environment movements anti-business, or is the State not living up to its responsibility as the mandated arbiter in the matter of development and environment protection?
Resistans ek Alternativ and Aret Kokin Nu Laplaz, not forgetting the indefatigable Georges Ah Yan have to be highly commended for the great work they are doing. We should not impute ulterior motives to their actions. They are fighting to protect public goods and they should be fully supported. Once these goods are gone, there is no getting them back. There is also nothing anti-business in their démarche.
As I mentioned earlier, the notion that environmental protection is bad for business is outdated. The 1975 Physical Development Strategy had already predicted that access to coastal resources and other public goods would become problematic in the future. It had therefore recommended the construction of hotels on the landward side of the coast without any realignment of the public roads or “privatization” of public lands and denial of public access to beaches.
It is unfortunate that a large section of the population has not yet realized the dangers of unfettered coastal development and still views such movements as anti-development and anti-job creation.
* But there is always the scope for big business having interests in a particular industry to leverage the power and nuisance value of pressure groups or “citizens movements” as well as through injunctions as permitted by the law – the Environment Protection Act, for instance – to effectively block the entry of competitive operators in or drive away competition from their almost monopolistic markets. What do you think?
This undoubtedly happens, and it’s well-known. The opposition of local communities to environmental protection movements may, in part, be instigated by hotel operators. But the Environmental Protection Act is there is ensure that the voice of each stakeholder is heard, whether coming from a competitor or an environmental movement. It’s wrong when the government intervenes and denies the rights of stakeholders to information and participation in the decision-making process.
If we go back some decades, you will recall that the State Bank HQ at Place d’Armes faced a lot of opposition. While some of the opposition may have come from genuine concerned citizens, a large number of protesters were in some way or other connected with a rival bank group! So, yes, the EPA provides for all stakeholders to be heard, and it is an essential instrument in the democratic process and the sustainable development path. It can be abused to some extent but, overall, environmental legislation and regulations serve to ensure that we leave a better and cleaner environment for future generations.
* We’ll get to know more about what went wrong and the reasons why CT Power could not start its operations here despite the green light given by the Environment Protection Tribunal and which was subsequently challenged by the Ministry of Environment, when the Privy Council delivers its ruling in this matter in a few months. Did you somehow get the feeling that there is more to the challenge by the State than environmental protection?
I am certainly inclined to think that it is not just the pursuit of environmental protection goals that prompted the government to block the CT Power project. This government has demonstrated its propensity to use institutions to settle scores, or perpetrate cover-ups.
I was myself revoked as a member of the Council of the University of Mauritius when the Staff committee, which I chaired, found enough evidence to require a very senior member of the staff to stand before a disciplinary committee. The staff member requested a judicial review, which found that my Staff Committee had acted well within its mandate. But the very strong and high level connections of the staff member in question prevented the disciplinary committee to do its job, and the Council eventually voted for the disbandment of the disciplinary committee.
* The energy sector is witnessing another tug of war inside the government itself between the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Energy and Public Utilities, and between the latter and the leader of the MMM. DPM Ivan Collendavelloo is all for the Rs 8 billion Combined Cycle Gas Turbine. Paul Berenger, who was earlier raising the alarm about the risks of blackouts, is now saying there is no need for “aucun empressement” as regards the CCGT project, and the Ministry of Finance has issued a circular with a view to imposing its authority on the public enterprises’ (including the CEB) borrowings to finance their investment projects (in this case the CCGT). Who do you suspect is pulling the strings there?
There is a general perception that a tug of war is going on. Eventually, the two coalition partners will find common ground and reach a compromise. The government is desperate to show the public that it means business and can get projects up and running in lesser time than the previous one. But, yes, we have to factor in PRB’s demands in case “koz kozé” reaches an advanced stage.
“An already attractive property development scheme was made even more profitable by this government under the guise of a so-called smart city scheme. How many are really “live-work-and-play” developments. There is a school in one of these schemes that promotes itself as non-denominational but asks for the religion of the child in its application form! It further gives priority to children from settlements along a coastal stretch that specifically excludes the biggest village that lies in its midst!…”
However, we need to realize that we are already in the last year of this government’s tenure and it would be improper to embark on a project of such a magnitude. This has always been Paul Berenger’s position. We’ll also recall Pravind Jugnauth’s position before the 2014 general elections when he wrote to Indian PM Modi to raise concerns about the light rail project in an election year. In a well-publicized video, he had even implied the high risks of kick-backs benefiting the then promoters.
The Combined Cycle Gas Turbine project is even costlier than the tramway/metro express when we consider the additional handling and supporting facilities that have to be provided in the port. So, there’s really no “empressement” and we can wait another year.
* Paul Berenger is known for his support of the sugar industry-owned bagasse-but-mostly-coal powered energy plants, and it appears the abandonment of the CCGT project would come in as a major condition for an MMM-MSM alliance. The MSM seems to be trying to accommodate the MMM’s interest in the sugar industry energy plants, even going to the length of publicly disavowing the DPM and Energy and Public Utilities minister through the MOF circular. How do you read Ivan Collendavelloo’s persistence in favour of the CCGT project? Is he trying to put a spoke in the wheel of an eventual MMM-MSM alliance that would exclude his Muvman Liberater?
If the abandonment of the CCGT project is a major pre-condition for an MMM-MSM alliance, then the fate of the Collendavelloo’s Muvman Liberater is already sealed! Ivan Collendavelloo may be trying his best to annoy Pravind Jugnauth, or doing his utmost to honour his “commitments” towards whatever vested interests he may be supporting, but he will not stand a chance if he has to be sacrificed. Rama Sithanen knows something about being the sacrificial lamb.
The Muvman Liberater has not even evolved as one of the “small parties” we talked about earlier, and does not carry any political weight. He cannot even pretend to be trying to “put a spoke in the wheel of an eventual MMM-MSM alliance”.
* On the other hand, a reflection of the “affairisme” of this government, says Lalit, is the recent revelations of the commission of inquiry on the Gurib Fakim-Sorbrinho affair which is an eye-opener of the nepotism and corruption that have been undermining our institutions. It adds that the MedPoint affair is a petty offense as compared to the deals concocted between the private sector and this “wheeler-dealer” government which considers state property as the party’s. How do you react to that?
I fully agree with Lalit’s analysis. The MedPoint affair, which involves Rs 144 million, is indeed a petty affair when compared to big business deals going on, particularly when we know that MedPoint is meant to be a health centre providing relief to cancer patients. We have not, unfortunately, seen the end of political vendettas. Just wait for when this government is booted out and a Navin Ramgoolam-led government takes over (if this ever happens, but most probably likely)! I keep saying that we tend to look at individual trees and forget to pay attention to the whole forest which is on fire.
Soon after this government came to power, I asked Minister Nando Bodha why are there so many infrastructure projects in the pipeline in the absence of a national master plan. His answer was that we can develop now and do the “raccommodage” later. This is in essence the government’s philosophy. Let’s promote business at all costs (and soil the environment) now and leave the cleaning up to later, or better to others.
The whole of Mauritius has suddenly become a building site but, while some may see this as a sign of progress and development, many people have started to question the unscrupulous nature of development decisions.
* Do you think the incestuousness of the mainstream parties with big business has taken alarming proportions here and is responsible for some of the problems which Mauritian society is facing, like increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation, etc.?
Political parties come to power and are booted out, but big business thrives. It keeps on benefitting from increasing incentives from successive governments. An already attractive property development scheme was made even more profitable by this government under the guise of a so-called smart city scheme. How many are really “live-work-and-play” developments. There is a school in one of these schemes that promotes itself as non-denominational but asks for the religion of the child in its application form! It further gives priority to children from settlements along a coastal stretch that specifically excludes the biggest village that lies in its midst! So much for fully integrated smart cities that have benefitted from state largesse!
* Tagged to the issue of incestuousness is the twist that is given to the concept of national interest. It seems to take a different meaning whenever the mainstream parties change sides or depending in which alliance they are or on which side of the fence they are. Who will protect the national interest?
First of all, we have to know what defines national interest. This is a very vague concept, with no legal basis. Anyone can invoke it to justify anything. So, we are not certain that, when national interest is invoked to justify policy decisions of the government in place, it is really national interest or just vested interest that is being served.
We can understand the invoking of “primary” national interests in respect of which there can be no compromise (defense of territorial or cultural integrity against encroachments by other states). But “variable” interests are in support of specific groups, business interests, etc., and framed as “national” through intense propaganda (with the help of MBCTV, e.g.). We need to know who decides what is in the national interest and what is not. More importantly, we need to ascertain that there is a transparent process in place to determine national interest. After all, if something is “national” then the population needs to be consulted.
The case of the metro express project has often been cited. National interest has been invoked to justify the massive spending and the amendment of the act to exempt the project from the statutory requirement of an environmental impact assessment. Doesn’t the population have a right to participate in the decision-making process? How do we know that it is the best option that has been retained?
Why should a handful of people decide what is best in the national interest? Just because we voted them into/to power doesn’t give them absolute power to decide on matters of national interest. The government has to dispel perceptions that vested interests are always determining the national interest, and rely more on matters decided through transparent public consultations and healthy debates.