On 12 March 1968, it was not quite clear what the future of Mauritius would be like. After all, we were a newly emerging country lost in a part of the world far removed from the main export markets, which were then dominating world trade and commerce. We had also just emerged from a tumultuous election the year before, in which the population appeared to have been torn asunder into two distinct blocs at loggerheads with each other on partisan lines, compounded by a politically nurtured racial/religious divide. Unemployment stalked high. Upwards of 20% of the population had no steady work occupation. Government finances were in bad shape, having been supported till then by grants from the UK. The whole campaign of the anti-independence party, the PMSD, rested on the argument that an independent Mauritius did not have the economic wherewithal to survive.
Our main product at the time was sugar. Ups and downs in its international price depressed further the already weak sustenance level of the population. The majority of the people lived in conditions of dire poverty, especially those in the rural and coastal areas. Only those who were employed in the public service and lived mostly in towns and their suburbs were less exposed to these gloomy economic conditions. It goes to the credit of political leaders of the period that, despite the almost desperate situation which prevailed then, they waged battle within a democratic framework to gain independence. It was leadership of the highest order, one that would not be deterred from facing the high risks associated with an island without natural resources and an economy which Professors Titmuss and Meade had in 1961 predicted to be hurtling towards a Malthusian debacle unless measures they recommended were implemented forthwith.
The task of forestalling this doom was formidable. The force of circumstances was such that, once independence became a fait accompli, the leader of the PMSD was persuaded to join hands with Labour in an overturning political coalition to help prevent the drift which threatened to bring the country’s economy to naught. This is where the economic diversification of Mauritius was launched in a world that was still heavily barricaded by pervasive trade barriers. Textiles and tourism were the first blocks to emerge for this national reconstruction.
pragmatic political leadership, supported by a dynamic and forward-looking Civil Service which would brook no red tape nor drive any agenda other than solely the country’s made the diversification possible. One cannot also miss the private sector entrepreneurial drive which was coupled with some serendipity or ‘luck’, as entrepreneurs from Hong Kong who set up industries here were searching other horizons as their island’s status was about to undergo a sea-change. We can safely add to this list the rule of law, a genuine respect of institutions, the farsighted investment in public health and education.
In the two decades after 1968, textile factories were implanted in almost all parts of the island. From one single unit in 1968, some 500 textile units were in operation by the mid-1980s. By 1987, there was full employment in Mauritius. From less than $500 in 1968, our GDP per capita stands today at higher than $10,000, no mean achievement for a country that has gone on diversifying its economic base. The ICT and financial sectors also took off in later years with strong capacity being built to handle the new demands of the market, and all of the above was supported by a robust Civil Service which had been at the forefront and led the way to economic and social development.
Economic empowerment coming in the wake of independence has improved the lot of nearly all households, a far cry from the bleak outlook of 1968, and new pillars have continued to be added to the economic landscape. However the side-effects of this rapid industrialization were unfortunately not given the attention they deserved, and we are paying the social price today. This needs urgent researching and remedying. Can we afford not to have that as a priority given the rapid degradation of mores and the epidemic of social ills that we are currently in the throes of?
Communal tension, which had raised its head in the pre-independence period, was also doused by the sheer scale of economic uplift as well as the universally applicable public policies followed by the country’s various governments. People had learnt the lessons of 1968, when communal clashes wrought their real destructive force during a brief stint. Sectarianism could have thwarted our march along the path of progress but it didn’t because successive governments after independence set down a platform which was fair towards everybody. All have equal un-discriminated access to the free education and free health care that governments have instituted since independence. Social welfare benefits are likewise available to all across the board without discrimination. Tolerance of diverse customs, beliefs and traditions in this multi-racial place has been a key factor towards the national consolidation we see today.
Further, the country’s present production infrastructure has not been achieved by chance. Much hard work has gone into it. Today’s world holds out similar if not bigger challenges than those that were faced by leaders of the independence era. We are lucky that we have not had to divert our energies to deal with the kind of havoc we are seeing in the various countries of the world assailed daily by insurgencies. Few will dispute that there has emerged a national identity that freely binds us together since the past 45 years.
51 years after independence, we are living in a different and fast-changing world. The new technologies, which are commonplace today, are pointing out to the kind of transformations we should engineer in our workplaces to keep upgrading them and keenly adapting to the world. The transformation we embarked on 51 years ago has perforce to continue in the future. There are also today other issues that have to be addressed in all earnest: growing inequality, a deteriotating law and order situation, access to lands and housing, preservation of our environment and our ecosystems, new boost to our manufacturing sector and agriculture especially in the sugar sector, which both seem to be running out of breath.
As we contemplate the future of the country, we see three critical challenges that need to be tackled on a fast-track basis so as to avert the continuing downward drift. There is an enormous trust deficit across all levels of society which has to be restored. Its shenanigans repeated with impunity and ad nauseam have brought the credibility of the political class to ground zero. And the institutions which are the bedrock of the soundness of our polity have had their autonomous functioning systematically eroded by political meddling. These dysfunctions have sunk us into a morass and must be promptly resolved.
Part of the solution is that we need to ignore, as we have done in the past, all the negative factors which have the potential to keep us from collectively making progress further. We have to remember and be inspired by the many individuals who have come up along the way to give the critical sense of direction the country needed. Many have selflessly pursued the objective of setting the country onto a higher path. We have no reason to think that there will not come along in the forward march of this nation equal numbers of enlightened, motivated and selfless individuals who will take our initial adventure into yet unseen domains and on much higher planes of achievement than what we see today.
* Published in print edition on 8 March 2019