What attention a country gives to general public welfare reflects the priorities and values of the elected leaders
By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
More than once this column has raised the point of endowing villages with such facilities as sports complexes and public libraries and parks — matters which, apparently, are not priorities of successive governments. Now that due attention is being given to a major project, we hope that it will not be shelved away in a year or two.
“Public parks are a product of intense urbanization in big countries, one might argue, and tropical islands are blessed with natural beauty. But amid shrinking space due to overcrowding and real estate and property development, different options should be envisaged. Recently, the Prime Minister donned his jogging outfit and was shown on television jogging along with the minister of sports to promote physical activities. Fine. The trouble is that where on earth do politicians think the public in this country can go for a walk let alone a daily jogging?”
Indeed, during the 2010 electoral campaign a grand project of a sports complex in Triolet was brandished as a big deal for the electorate, the cost of which was announced to be as high as 30 million rupees. Not the slightest hint of any such project was aired during the mandate of the then government. It just vanished into thin air. Two months before general elections in 2014, the project came out of the drawers again as an electoral promise by the outgoing government at a skyrocketing price of Rs 112 million.
Reportedly, the authorities did negotiate for some lands with Solitude Sugar Estate and obtained an adequate area for the project to materialize. But then, it would appear that political agents in the village coveted the lands for their personal use. No sooner the sugar estate owners got information of the twisted private use of the lands that they blocked the offer. Which was the right thing to do because Mauritus is not Zimbabwe, and lands cannot be grabbed from the plantocracy and distributed at random to friends and cronies close to political power just to satisfy their personal greed. Not hard to imagine what they would have done with the lands. At best, they would have developed organic agriculture with a variety of vegetables provided the beneficiaries had a taste for such an enterprise, and at worst, the lands would have been studded with a row of ugly two-storey local style concrete houses, an umpteenth copy of ugliness which has spoilt many a beautiful green landscape in the island.
Recently, word went around as regards the same project taken up by the present government in a different location. The neighbouring lands near the bazaar at Trois Boutiques are being targeted for the much awaited building of a sports complex. The first idea that crosses our mind is that a space-saving measure should aim at a maximum use of the parking lot of the bazaar if it is open to the public during the week for future users of the sports facility instead of being used only on market day on Sunday mornings from 5 to approximately 11 a.m.
May we suggest a few points? First, any sum reached at by construction companies and accepted by the government be submitted to public scrutiny for the sake of transparency. Why? Because public funds should not be squandered for the benefit of crooks in the private sector and fill the pockets of a few rogues in government. Second, the public is not stupid and can set up an independent committee to assess the real costs of a building project, and submit their findings to district councils and central government. Such initiatives enhance the democratic process in which citizens should participate and not be passive spectators of decision-taking from above without any accountability to the people. It just sounds logical that citizens of any village or town should have the right to know what exactly is being done with public funds in their areas. So to enable the process of scrutiny, all the details of the building should be made public: the surface area to be built in terms of square metres, length, breath and height, the type of construction materials envisaged as well as sports equipment. It’s not rocket science to assess the costs.
Ongoing Yellow Vests’ apparently erratic demonstrations in France are partly due to public resentment of a loss of sovereignty when decisions are taken by a few without the pubic having a say in matters impacting their daily lives. The weekly Saturday fever of discontent may have given a boost to peaceful street protests staged in Algeria where citizens are just saying: enough is enough! They will not back away till the rotten corrupt autocratic bunch is ousted. It all means that, at the end of the day, authorities cannot disregard public participation in major policy decisions. And above all, the country is not the private property of a happy few.
The third suggestion concerns transparency in the type of activities that the complex will provide. May we suggest a space big enough to accommodate 30 to 40 people for yoga classes for all ages, and preferably, with a wooden floor, and an adjoining even bigger open space be used for yoga sessions in an appropriate natural environment with plants and flowers. Private teachers can be asked to pay a rent for the use of space if their lessons are not free. The physical and mental health benefits are well-known enough to have it included in a vast sports complex.
Cricket is a sport which is likely to get popular with the general public. Up to now no significant response has been aired by the different ministries for sports despite requests voiced to introduce the sport in Mauritius. Can they give a thought to it?
Sports activities should encompass a wide choice to avoid being gender- and age-biased. Open air playgrounds may be favoured for some sports. We hope that proper attention will be given to the architecture of the project, which means that it does not all have to be a huge concrete building with a glaring lack of taste in style which will be an eyesore amid the existing pleasant vast greenery of sugarcane fields.
It is more than high time to implement projects for public welfare so as to our improve human development and happiness index. To cope with overwork and sleep disorders, folks need public spaces which serve as a gathering point for healthy social interaction and physical development.
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What attention a country gives to general public welfare reflects the priorities and values of the elected leaders. Spain and its autonomous Canary Islands are generous in terms of public squares with statues and fountains, and small public playgrounds for children. Something which is less widespread in France where streets in towns and villages have concentrated on the needs of mainly adult males to drink and smoke in cafés among male peers. Small Seychelles during its socialist era saw to it that every island be endowed with a public library even though reading material was widely selective and excluded books which were not in tune with socialist ideology.
Singapore’s style of integrating children’s playgrounds in shopping malls, which are commercial and not free, are not desirable in Mauritius. Unlike the city-state which does not enjoy a wider surface, over here we’d rather have natural public playgrounds and not the ones sold by two supermarkets in Grand Bay.
What we mean by public parks in this column is a wide space with small alleys lined with trees and flowers, a playground for children and spots with lawns and fountains. Not the two small playgrounds we have in Triolet. Public parks are a product of intense urbanization in big countries, one might argue, and tropical islands are blessed with natural beauty. But amid shrinking space due to overcrowding and real estate and property development, different options should be envisaged.
Recently, the Prime Minister donned his jogging outfit and was shown on television jogging along with the minister of sports to promote physical activities. Fine. The trouble is that where on earth do politicians think the public in this country can go for a walk let alone a daily jogging?
As regards libraries, we hope that the interview of Chetan Ramchurn, published in Mauritius Times recently, will be favourably echoed in the government. More than 18 years have already been wasted in total neglect for this aspect of development. Again, in a space-saving strategy already existing-neighbouring parking lots can be used for new buildings. For instance, a library in Triolet will be best located near the future sports complex in the neighbourhood of the bazaar.
Last but not least, it is high time inhabitants in rural areas pay a tax and contribute to services provided locally.
We do hope that the promise of new projects does not boil down to vote-winning gimmicks during the forthcoming electoral campaign. First and foremost, to implement new projects, the authorities should take full stock of the overall benefits in terms of socializing, public interaction, intellectual and physical development and the importance of promoting them. Have they?
* Published in print edition on 12 April 2019