Agalega: About time!

We all know how the people of Chagos were literally ejected from the land of their birth and summarily dumped in Mauritius to fend for themselves, with hardly any means put at their disposal to make a decent new living in an environment which was alien to them. It is a tragic story of blackmail and betrayal by the colonial master Britain, which colluded with the US to hand over to it Diego Garcia to be used as a military base.

That this may have been an overarching need at the time is conceded – but in no way does that justify, or condone the treatment to which the Chagossians were subjected, in violation of their human rights. When this happens elsewhere these two countries and other powers get on their high horse to condemn loudly at the global level, without looking in their own backyards at similar violations!

The sordid details of this saga have been extensively articulated in several articles in this paper, in particular those by David Snoxell, former UK High Commissioner in Mauritius, and by Dr Sean Carey, honorary senior research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester.

The latest twist was the UK’s colourable device to set up a marine biological park in the area, a way to continue exercising its suzerainty over a piece of Mauritian territory. The move by the former government, initiated by ex-Prime Minister Navin Ramgooolam, to counter this proposal is still pending before the law. Nearly two years down the line the case has not yet been determined.

It is in this perspective that we must welcome the Cabinet decision that has been announced, namely “the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding for the improvement of Sea and Air Transportation Facilities at Agalega with the Government of India”. The project comprises, among others:

(a)        the construction of a jetty for berthing of ships;

(b)        the rehabilitation and repaving of the runaway;

(c)        the installation of a power generation facility;

(d)        the setting up of a water desalination plant; and

(e)        the construction of a National Coast Guard Post.

The Memorandum of Understanding would be signed during the forthcoming visit of Sri Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India.

After such a long time, this is no doubt a most welcome piece of news for the inhabitants of Agalega, too long considered as a simple outpost of our territory. What Agalega must be ferociously spared from is the exploitative form of consumerist tourism that will inevitably corrupt the beauty of the island and in the process exploit and spoil the people living there. Left to those with such an agenda, all that the inhabitants there can expect is to become glorified servants or caddy boys for the golf elite.

What is proposed is nothing but the logical extension of assistance that India has so willingly provided to the island in the form of the Dornier aircraft, which met some crucial transportation needs of the island as well as, more critically, helped to save the lives of several patients who have needed urgent evacuation to Mauritius. If it were but for that only, that is, to save lives, the MOU to be signed would be more than worth its weight in gold. The better news is that it goes much further in the development of the infrastructure of the island, when we look at the number and range of projects outlined in the Cabinet decision.

In fact, pursuing with health matters, and given that during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi these too are on the cards, a humble suggestion is that the Government of India’s help be sought to build a mini-hospital there. On its part, the Mauritian government would complement this by providing adequate living quarters for a minimum of basic medical and paramedical staff who would be posted there on a rotation basis, as is done for Rodrigues. This would certainly pre-empt the need for rushing the Dornier at short notice to airlift patients in need of immediate proper medical attention, adding further to their distress.

On the other hand, it is a fact that India has comprehensive expertise, amongst others, in ocean cartography and the search for metallic nodules on the ocean bed. Given the extensive ocean area that we now share with the Seychelles, which too has strong collaboration with India, the latter could certainly partner with our two countries in the sustainable exploration and development of our common marine resources.

Landing ashore at Agalega has till now been a real nightmare, and the plan to build a jetty there is undoubtedly one of the strongest points in this memorandum. All government officers who had to go there on postings recall their arrival to the island with apprehension. When the jetty is built, this will no longer be the case and there will be less reluctance on the part of these officers to go and work there, especially in respect of the meteorological and medical services.

All in all, this MOU is a win-win opportunity for the country, and Government has every reason to press full steam ahead on the projects identified, which are meant for the welfare of the islanders. Besides, it is an open secret that even before Prime Minister Modi had assumed office, India was being looked up to as an emerging power. This image has been enhanced since the advent of Modi, what with his skilful and willing engagement with all the major world leaders, most of whom have made it a point to travel to India during the short few months he has been in power, so as to pursue and facilitate the numerous business opportunities that are opening up. We must not lose the chance to partner with India on whatever fronts we can, but at the same time there is an important dimension to this relationship: India is no erstwhile colonial master and is not known to harbour any territorial ambitions. On the contrary, as far as Mauritius is concerned India has been ever a giver.

If it ‘gives’ us a modernised Agalega, who will gain but the people of the island? For their sake, surely we cannot afford to miss this golden opportunity.


* Published in print edition on 6  March  2015

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