Well-planned and well-run towns and villages

By TP Saran

We pretend to be an upper middle-income country with outcome indicators that make us proud to be on top in the Sub-Saharan region. But when we move out to other leagues, and ponder seriously our decades-old aspiration to be like Singapore, we find that things do not quite add up.

And yet we continue to dream of becoming not like but actually the Singapore of the Indian Ocean. There would have been nothing absurd about this persistent idea if we had matched our ambition with the wherewithal to achieve it – starting with a radical change of mindset driven by political leadership at the apex with exemplary transmission to all other strategic levels, and building the trustworthiness across all strata of society and among all stakeholders so as to educate, skill and organize ourselves for the purpose.

But we all know that we are far behind. There is an obvious mismatch and disconnect between the luxurious constructions that are coming up in several locations in the country, meant exclusively for those with high net worth, and the degradation which our main towns and large village conurbations are visibly undergoing. Add to that the degeneration consequent upon social ills such as drugs, violence against women and children, crimes petty and major that affect both locals and tourists, widespread lack of politeness that regularly leads to verbal vulgarity if not aggressivity especially on the roads and when neighbours have a dispute, a general sense of disorderliness, poor social solidarity: we can add many more to this dishonourable list that should shame us.

And so: another 50 years at least to go to reach present Singaporean levels, if we are lucky – except that it is only determination and dedication to undertake the tasks that are needed that will get us there, and not luck. There are things that the central government should take care of – security, law and order, international and regional partnerships, major social welfare programmes, and so on. But a lot of the things that affect citizens in their daily lives – planning for land and space utilization, regulating constructions, maintenance works e.g. green spaces/gardens, health tracks, drains and run-offs, clean streets free of obstructions (including hawkers – who do need a decent space to ply their trade, though), hygienic environments and marketplaces, waste collection and disposal, amongst other things – are the mandate of their local councils in the towns, districts and villages, through their elected representatives who should work in synergy and not at cross purposes with their central counterparts and in a mutual bipartisan spirit for the good of the inhabitants.

To transform our towns and villages we need efficient local administration, and there is no mystery about the elements that go to make this up, however trite it might seem to repeat that:

· Dedicated councillors of calibre;

· A cohesive team;

· Leadership with drive, ideas and initiatives;

· Shared vision, well-defined objectives and agreed strategies;

· Transparent and accountable governance;

· Involvement of and listening to citizens.

It is a sad commentary that our local councils have been in the limelight more often for the wrong reasons: the main ones being money scandals, and lavish expenditures of the manze-boire type and group travel to far-flung foreign destinations that do not bring back anything concrete for the towns or their inhabitants. Have we ever got to know whom the loudly proclaimed jumelages benefit, for example? There are surely other improprieties that take place such as allocations of stalls in markets, but the ones cited are enough to give all right-thinking citizens and honest taxpayers the goose-pimps.

We must do things right at both the micro and macro levels – local and central, and there are clear modes of functioning that respect boundaries, roles, liabilities and responsibilities that can be ‘copy-pasted’ with suitable adaptations, that is, best practices and Standard Operating Procedures culled from reliable sources.

Which town in Mauritius is known specifically and uniquely for what? We are referring to what we can perhaps call ‘themes’ for each town. In days gone by, the Police Band, or the Veeramundar Band, used to play in certain towns regularly on specified days, usually Sunday, and people would wait impatiently to attend with family and friends, and enjoy in the open in a convivial atmosphere. In New York, for example, in a park not far from Union Square in lower Manhattan, after office work and before going home, people can attend a concert in the open air, sitting on the grass and enjoying snacks sold unobtrusively. One can imagine the kind of warm and pleasant feeling that is generated and spreads. People would go home harbouring this disposition that would linger for a few days, that raises the level of feel-good and empathy all round, and that is likely to result in more constructive and productive work days.

So it’s not only a question of transient gratifications: the intangible benefits to society are what would make our towns and villages more liveable. When councillors are elected and they deliberate, this is the kind of larger objective that they should contemplate, keep in view the long term. There are any number of cultural and social activities that can be organized for the collectivity, and as mentioned above, each town or village could potentially be a pole of uniqueness for a particular event or theme that draws upon the particularities of the locality.

Another idea that comes to mind is to call upon the locally available talents and experience to address issues of civic and social concern. What prevents the local councils from having a register of volunteer retirees who could, for example, be requested to talk to targeted groups e.g. schoolchildren about civic values, health topics, social issues – and so many other topics that can be identified after open discussions sponsored by the councils? That would no doubt be time well spent and again, the soft benefits would far outstrip any material investment that would be needed, which is likely to be comparatively little. Or is it that councillors are only interested in activities that bring large monetary rewards to themselves?

Let us hope that the newly-elected councillors, especially the younger ones, decide to tread out of the beaten paths and are prepared to explore new ones together with their electorate. Then only can we expect that new dawn to rise on our towns and villages. Will the new ones fulfill that dream for the people of their regions? We ask them to challenge themselves…


* Published in print edition on 30 November 2012

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