What about smarter towns and villages too?

Municipal elections

The idea of ‘smart cities’ announced by Finance Minister Lutchmeenaraidoo has been generally accepted and considered to be both feasible and viable, despite precise details not being available yet. It is also conceded that smart cities will not spring out of the blue and that there is a lot of groundwork to do before actual implementation begins.

However, it must not be forgotten that there is also genuine concern about increasing the obvious mismatch and disconnect between the luxurious constructions that have and continue to come 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. Will the smart cities project accentuate this divide or will inclusiveness be factored in so that we do not create further fragmentation of society? This is a serious matter, and that needs to be looked into with equal seriousness in the planning of these smart cities and their harmonious integration into the local landscape.

This said, and in view of the coming municipal elections, we have to draw attention to the state of our existing towns and villages. 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 need to be regulated and also a decent space to ply their trade), 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 (or multi-partisan) spirit for the good of the inhabitants.

Why shouldn’t we have the ambition of transforming our existing towns and villages into smarter ones, as a prelude to the future smart cities?

For this to happen we need efficient local administration, and there is no mystery about the elements that go to make this up. They are:

  • 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 (SOPs) 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 culturally enriching and is likely also 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 soon to be 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 12 June 2015

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