In a country in which land stands out as one of its most scarce of resources, one would have expected the government – present and previous ones as well — to monitor carefully and meticulously the use to which it is being put. On the one hand, we have a recurring problem of squatters. On the other, real estate and property development for the so-called ‘smart cities’ and other IRS/ERS for richly endowed foreign nationals, which has become a bonanza for those who are endowed with land, has crowded most of the younger generations out of the land and housing market. When the opportunity knocked at our door to do something serious and in the public interest about the issue of land, we failed to make optimum use of it as it was well illustrated by the poor – and questionable – handling of the Illovo lands.
The all-inclusive land area of Mauritius is about 1860 square kilometres. Mauritius currently has a permanent population of 1.3 million; we also have annual visitors of more than 1 million from the rest of the world, mainly tourists and businessmen. The number of hotels and their room capacity has accordingly been on the increase.
Most of our agricultural land is under sugarcane plantation but total sugar production which used to be in the region of 700,000 tonnes at the peak in past years has dropped to around 300,000 tonnes per annum in recent years. This means that the land surface under sugarcane cultivation has been decreasing. Besides abandoned plots of land by small planters due to falling sugar prices, large tracts of land have increasingly been ceded over to the construction and sale of luxury villas to foreigners under the IRS and other similar schemes, so that part of the land which was or could have been devoted to agricultural production has been occupied by those villas.
Given also that from year to year we are increasing our imports of basic food supplies, this means that it is not non-cane food production that is claiming away part of our cultivable land. Increasing occupation of sugarcane land by other activities which are sprouting up in parallel shows that limits have been reached. Thus, if we were to diversify agriculture into other agricultural activities which are economically more attractive than sugar production, the sugarcane land will need to be released to make space for those diversified activities.
There are at least two more claimants of land in terms of our future needs.
One is the need for land to expand the physical infrastructure, which plays a critical role in the facilitation of efficient economic production. We witnessed how the Jin Fei project in the north requisitioned land for the project itself as well as for the accompanying infrastructure. Hotel and the ‘smart city’ projects are also land-hungry. The inevitable development of wider roads now and in the future will, in the face of an unplanned relentless expansion of vehicles on the roads, claim more land.
The other major future claimant of land is the new generation. No doubt, the allocation of land to specific public development and private sector projects has the effect of lifting several-fold land prices in the area in the immediate proximity of such projects. As erstwhile sugarcane lands have been getting increasingly converted to residential or commercial use, or both, land price has been irretrievably shooting up. Much higher land prices have put land virtually out of reach of the younger members of our population aspiring to have a house of their own.
This kind of acceleration of the price of residential land should have been accompanied by public policies to safeguard future access to land by those for whom the land was getting out of reach as property development was allowed to proceed apace. One measure, which fell on deaf ears despite repeated recommendations, was for government to recover a reasonable part, not a token amount, of the windfall gains arising from conversion of land from agricultural to non-agricultural use in the context of the IRS and other property development projects. The amount so recovered could have constituted a large enough fund for launching various public sector-sponsored housing programs for different groups and professional levels of the population in need of affordable homes in the future. Another measure would have been for the government, not land speculators, to constitute a land bank for pursuing social housing programs consistently with a plausible scheme for food security; even willing members of the private sector could have been induced to join in under public sector supervision. We have had none of that.
That is why the problem of genuine squatters is surfacing up from time to time. It will keep emerging again and again unless someone makes a holistic study of the whole matter and policy focus is shifted from purely market-driven to social objective-driven as well. Successive governments have failed to guide themselves by the examples of other countries which have been more careful in handling their land management policies. It may not be too late to take the necessary initiative which goes beyond the sheer objective of a cadastral plan and collection of taxes.
It is indeed a major problem and a pity that the land issue, which ought to receive the continuous and serious attention of policy makers is being sidelined by issues of bungling of public funds or of the environment which claim an overhyped attention. Important though they are, it cannot be denied that the land issue is a fundamental one that concerns the very existence and viability of the country – reason enough for it to claim the priority attention of the powers that be, now and in the future.
* Published in print edition on 2 October 2020