The Incinerator at Riche Terre and Civil Society

There is no reason why projects that are not acceptable in other countries should be forced on our citizens

By Sada Reddi

The protest of civil society against the installation of an incinerator at Riche Terre provides us with a concrete example on how the State can encroach on citizens’ rights and how civil society can and should mobilize to protect its rights. Today, it is becoming clear that the state sees itself as all-powerful, and it is increasingly perceived to be capable to ride roughshod, in collusion with Capital, on the interests of citizens. It also shows how a State, democratically established by its citizens, can distance itself from the concerns of society and this disconnectedness, if not checked by citizens, will prove destructive for society.

Fortunately in Mauritius, the state, despite displaying totalitarian tendencies from time to time, is not the exclusive agent of power. There are other agents like the press, elected Members of Parliament, public opinion, the judiciary, various organisations and, most important of all, civil society that can counteract state power. On the one hand, the state in collusion with Capital relies on the state bureaucracy to trample on the rights of individuals and civil society. On the other hand, the individual, when confronted with an act of injustice, can resort to law courts and invoke the laws of the country and the Constitution to seek redress. Our Supreme Court judges will ensure that the laws of the country are respected and enforced without any favour. But resorting to the law can be cumbersome and expensive, and justice may not always be easily accessible to the common citizen.

But more and more it is civil society which has to take upon itself the responsibility to safeguard the rights of citizens in a democratic society; this is happening across the world. For far too long civil society has placed its sole trust in the state as the guardian of its rights, and it has in the process been reduced to being a passive body of citizens. In many countries, citizens get to decide only once in five years whether their trust in the State has been upheld or violated. It often turns out to be too late with consequences that prove to be irreversible or would require a long time to reverse. We can take a very long time to build a democratic state, but within a short space of time it can degenerate into a monster that devours its own citizens.

Our own society comprises a number volunteer organisations like trade unions, parent-teacher associations, youth organizations, senior citizens clubs, NGOs, as well as community and communitarian organisations which strive in different ways to contribute to the wellbeing of one and all. There is an overlap among these various organizations which can span across communities, ethnicities ad religions. People have multiple identities and belong to different organizations; the freedom of association guaranteed in our constitution allows citizens to form as many organisations they want within the framework of the law.

But a civil organization, which is grounded in the local community, has one major advantage; it is an organic entity which usually in a plural society cuts across such diversities as ethnicity, religion and class; its solidarity against a common threat – the insolence of the bureaucracy/capital or the state – is a most powerful tool to subvert policies which are detrimental to the citizens. We have had so many examples in recent years when the bureaucracy and the corporate sector have had to roll back and come down from their ivory tower to parley with citizens with a view to resolving together with the latter issues at the local level. Had not civil society responded, sometimes spontaneously, or mounted an organized protest and resistance, many of the problems would have remained unresolved.

However, it is obvious that resistance from civil society should at all times be well planned and organized to make any action effective and successful in safeguarding citizens’ welfare. The state, bureaucracy and capital usually deploy enormous resources to fight back. They would tend to discredit civil society as the action of a few to be ignored; citizens and those sympathetic to their action will be dubbed anti-patriotic, anti-development and irrational. Like at Tamarin, public relations campaigns will be organized to create the illusion that the corporate sector will create meaningful jobs for citizens oblivious to the overall negative consequences on people’s lives and their well-being. What count for them are money and more money and more exploitation and nothing else. Vague promises will be given with the least intention to respect them both in the short- and in the long-term. The bureaucracy may even support State action with reports and communiqués so loosely drafted that they can mean everything and nothing.

The civic organization of Riche Terre is ideally suited to fight for the rights of the local inhabitants. It is well known that pollution of any kind is a threat to the health and well-being of our citizens not only in Riche Terre but all over the country, and all organisations as well as individuals should whenever possible help. While the social media can be used to galvanise support, it is the local citizens and local stakeholders who have to be sensitized and mobilized to understand the issues at stake and to take measures for the protection of our citizens.

An incinerator for biomedical waste will emit toxic air pollutants that are a major source of dioxins in the environment, and these have the potential to cause cancer. We have seen how developed countries producing billions of tons of non-recyclable plastic waste ship them to developing countries, and it’s only recently that many of these countries have realized the risks to their people and are sending back these containers of waste to the polluters. There is no reason why projects that are not acceptable in other countries should be forced on our citizens.

There are already signs that as regards the Riche Terre incinerator for biomedical waste, its project developers are determined to press on with their project and citizens should remain alert and vigilant. The EIA report to be released must be studied in great depth, its gaps and weaknesses identified, and where possible the opinion of independent experts on the issue should be obtained. While the civil society platform at Riche Terre, the MAP (Mouvement Anti-pollution) will spearhead the movement, it should enlist the support of other civil society organisations, political parties and other social movements to resist manipulation, bribery attempts and the ‘divide and rule’ tactics to be able to check the power of the state and business interests.

The challenge posed by the incinerator is a daunting one and should not be underestimated, and the success of civil society will be a success for sustainable development and participatory democracy and, above all, it will enable citizens to recover their rights that had been confiscated by the state, the bureaucracy and capital.

* Published in print edition on 16 August 2019

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