Port Louis: Capital Punishment

Other than those who reside there or travel to work in Port Louis daily, most of us Mauritians too at some point or the other go to our capital city. There are shop owners who go on a weekly basis to replenish stock, and other business people have their own matters to attend to. The horse-racing season draws its fan crowds, and of course the city is on the touristic circuit as well. Then there are the occasional visitors who go for quick short trips to various bodies e.g. Ministry of Social Security and other ministries for this or that ‘demarche’. And so on for other categories of people who visit off and on.

However, there is one thing on which all are agreed: over the years Port Louis has become an ‘impossible’ city: hyper-congested with buildings, vehicular traffic and humans, and simply unbearably hot at any time of the year. Overheated, in all respects both physically and figuratively.

High rise buildings have come up to accommodate more and more offices and therefore more and more people, who mostly commute from the other parts of the island by the tens of thousands adding to the city’s 140,000 plus population (2012 estimate), so that the population swells on working days.

No need to say that the commute means cars, buses, vans, lorries … – over 300,000 vehicles transit through the city daily, and this is a nightmare, what with road infrastructure not having changed for the better at all, save for the entry from the south and exit point towards Mer Rouge: and these too, nevertheless, are subject to bottlenecks with long lines of vehicles held up. And that also, no longer only at peak hours – it’s practically throughout the day.

When we mention infrastructure, come to mind the narrow roads within the city, rendered narrower with vehicles parked on either side of the road, so that a driver has to really perform acrobatics if he does not want to hit a car or damage his own, especially with the road surfaces being convex rather than flat a common feature.

With pavements in various states of damage and disrepair and open drains such as are seen across the road from Citadelle Mall with the sanitary risks that this implies, walking in Port Louis is far from being a pleasure. The terms used to describe such experiences are, ‘ene punition sa!’, ‘l’enfer!’. Not only because of the jostling and the dense traffic, and the uneven pavements with unpredictable heights above the road level (try Bourbon Street for example) and where one can slip on ever-present litter, but also because all of these together – the concrete jungle, traffic density, lack of adequate greenery and so on – have combined to maintain the already high ambient temperature at even higher, intolerable levels. And the equally high humidity only makes matters worse.

To this one must not forget the quick flooding that takes place whenever there is a shower of rain, thanks to drains clogged with garbage (especially plastic) thrown in by irresponsible occupiers of the nearby spaces, as also because of the rainwater that no longer can get absorbed in the asphalt covered passages in between the concrete, unbridled peri-urban expansion and therefore travels downwards goes towards the city.

The result is that only a few minutes walk anywhere in the city leaves one drenched in sweat and exhausted from dehydration and heat. Everybody who returns home from the city, whether or not he lives there, breathes a sigh of relief and promptly reaches out for cold water — to quench thirst, to splash on the face, or to bathe a second (or third) time. As for those who are not residents and are obliged to make an occasional trip, they certainly do not look forward to another one any time soon!

So the idea and principle of doing something about this worsening situation in Port Louis has been around for many years, grounded not in political demagogy but in a felt reality by all Mauritian citizens who care for their country and its capital city, even if they are not its residents. Short of building afresh another capital – which a number of countries have, after all, done, such as Malaysia, Myanmar – there is a sound rationale for shifting several activities from the city to other regions in the country, starting with government ones so as to give the good example. This paper has indeed made such a suggestion in the past, as also the setting up of an island-wide bus corridor based on the Curitiba city model in Brazil, a more sustainable one than light railway.

Indeed most of the ministries could justifiably be moved elsewhere, and with the video-conferencing facilities and other communication platforms available today, their physical presence in Port Louis is no longer necessary. We do not advocate going to the extreme being currently peddled, namely to shift the Parliament and the Prime Minister’s Office too. The Parliament is a historic building; so too is the Treasury which has been converted at enormous cost to the Prime Minster’s office, and they are both more than adequate and fully functional.

Some key ministries that should remain are, for example, Finance and Economic Development, Foreign Affairs, Civil and Administrative Reforms, Information and Communication Technology because of the more direct links they have with the PMO. Certain other key government institutions too could stay put.

It goes without saying that this has to be a collective and informed – wide stakeholder inputs including, most importantly, TOWN PLANNERS – government decision and not one-man shows. And must form part of a National Physical Development Plan which, if it already exists has certainly not been aired enough to the public. Further, if it has not been implemented then all successive governments owe an explanation to the citizens of the country for the reasons thereof; and the present government must rectify the situation by speeding such implementation.

Further, in doing so and seeking funding for the same we must not sell our souls, for we are Mauritius and we have a track record of peaceful coexistence. We don’t want outside players with different agendas to impose theirs on us. The terms and conditions of all proposals must be made available in their totality to the public, and future generations of Mauritians must not be made to carry an inordinate burden of debts and be exposed to potential social instability.

The choice of strategic partnerships is therefore of critical importance so as to avoid any risk of social and cultural instability because any project of this nature and dimension is bound to profoundly affect the social and cultural life of the country besides its economic aspects.

Whether to call it Heritage or Smart City is to be debated, but practically all Mauritians feel that what we need is not clusters of Smart here and Smart there, but a Smart, Livable and environmentally Sustainable country – the whole island, not exclusive enclaves. Only by government regulation and being in full and proper control with a tangible and visible leadership at the top can this be achieved. We need to hear from the one true leader, not several disparate voices as is currently the case. The sooner this happens the sooner will the eroding credibility of the government be restored.

Mauritian citizens need a strong dose of reassurance, and it ought to come at the soonest. We cannot endure any more Capital Punishment…

* Published in print edition on 26 February 2016

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