The State Lands Saga

As things are going in the matter of land and national assets, we have no choice but to plead for some enlightened judicial activism. That only can stop the rot

When the late Duval brothers were in the Cabinet many years ago, one of them being in charge of the Ministry of Lands, sarcastic remarks were being made by those in the Opposition about the “Festival de la Terre” or the land saga. Those remarks were meant to convey that political cronies and activists or even family members were being covertly helped to acquire plots of State lands. Such accusations have been made against successive governments by opposition parties down the years. They are usually levelled by the opposition. Once this Opposition goes into government, the previous government, now in opposition, takes on the role of accusing the new government of ingratiating selected political beneficiaries by rewarding them with lavish donations of State lands for pecuniary or other support provided during the electoral campaign.

Readers will recall for example that the 2000-05 MSM-MMM government was accused by the then Opposition of having privileged a group of six persons with the bulk of Illovo lands to the detriment of the nation. No legal or other action had been taken to reverse this ‘wrong’ private deal. The MMM, when it was in the opposition during the 1995-2000 period, spoke in public about allegedly perverse land deals done in the Albion region. It did nothing to follow its words by any action that could vindicate its allegations once it came to power. Similarly there have been allegations relating to coastal State lands and islets given out at one time or the other to cronies or financiers – and no concrete action followed to ensure that an end would be put to such practices perpetrated by the preceding government/s.

The fact of the matter is that these repeated arguments have not ended the saga of State land distribution to cronies and family members of political regimes. The other fact is that, given the enduring nature of these “transactions”, the public has taken it for granted that this type of questionable practices is endemic. In other words, nothing can be done about it.

The latest in the series relates to the alleged sale by the son of former Housing and Lands minister Soodhun of his lease rights over a plot of State lands to Chinese investors for some Rs 48 million, sale which according to documents published in the press would have been approved by the former minister himself. Whether this amounts to a case of conflict of interest is for the investigating authorities and the Law to determine should an inquiry be initiated in the matter. The Intermediate Court ruling in the matter of MedPoint, although subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court, would however be a good place to start with for guidance on this and similar matters that may come up in future – though one would hope if some day a judgement is entrenched and becomes jurisprudence, it would put an end to such temptations to wrongdoing.

What is striking – and frustrating for the thousands of citizens who have the interest of the country and its (limited) resources at heart is that, despite so much controversy having surrounded the allocation of State lands over the years, there is no guarantee that the latest cases would be the last of such controversies.

Should there not be a transparent mechanism for allocation of lands to avoid casting every such deal in the shadow of corruption? Should not the cadastre of available State lands for commercial purposes be publicly disclosed? Why are the handsome gains accruing from the exploitation of prime state lands monopolised by some persons who align themselves with the governments in power? Transparency would obviously have been a reasonable alternative course to follow. But it is not difficult to understand why successive governments have not chosen to take action to forestall corrupt practices in land allocation. It appears that governments will lose the chance to make those allocations in their absolute discretion if there was a transparent process.

Economists and other technicians would argue that it is normally not the business of governments to take decisions with regard to the allocation of commercial public properties among individuals. They can make the broad policies about which State lands can and which ones cannot be allocated as well as the broad terms and conditions, and their role stops there. Alas, no government would actually want to relinquish its privilege by going in this direction.

But one can also argue that there may be some good reasons for doing so given the historical context in which land allocations to a selected few have operated in earlier times. However, it may not be advisable to allow things to continue as they are because these occult deals do not serve the interest of the people at large and instead go to swell the pockets of those who already have more than enough but are ever greedy for more.

We have always maintained that it is the judiciary that is the final bulwark of the people, whether the individual or the people as country, meaning the national interest. And as a people, we cannot but turn to the judiciary and pray that from their vantage point they will be able to see clearer than the cheating and manipulating class of people. And see further, too, than this lot elected to prepare the conditions for the coming generations and instead have never stopped letting them down.

At the end of the day, let the land be restituted by due process to the people, the vulnerable ones facing an uncertain future in terms of availability of jobs and decent incomes – they who are struggling to find a place under the sun, whose ancestors toiled so that they would be able to live a better life. This means fundamentally having access to a little corner they can call their own – a legitimate dream surely — and which is being increasingly denied to them by the very people they place their hope in to change their lives.

As things are going in the matter of land and national assets, we have no choice but to plead for some enlightened judicial activism. That only can stop the rot, and ensure a future for our next generations of citizens, one they can look forward to rather than despair about.

 


* Published in print edition on 6 July 2018

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