By TP Saran
This is a chance to set direction and promote balance, which are determining for our future development, and we sincerely hope that the Budget will contain ample amounts of both. And it does not need any special wizardry to factor in these dimensions: the humane aspect has to be kept in the fore during preparation, and this is not, alas, the forte of the Bretton Woods brigade
Every year the Budget is awaited with bated breath: excitement for some, apprehension for others. Those who have the power to lobby are gratified to see included the measures that they have canvassed and are in their favour. The majority of people, however, have little or no control whatsoever on the budgetary package. They therefore have to depend on the good faith, vision, goodwill and competence of their elected representatives and ministries to push for a government programme that responds to their aspirations and expectations over and above addressing the fundamental needs – which they assume to be known by those who govern.
Is that the case? And if so, are they effectively addressed, and in good time? A look at government programmes over the years will quickly lead us to realize that there seems to be a disconnect between the visions proclaimed and grand projects announced, and what has actually taken place on the ground. In the meantime, the costs have kept going up and when the projects get under way, the costs have surged many times more that the original estimates – not to speak of the consultancy and other fees that have been spent along the way. Incidentally, it would be an interesting exercise if the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development were to compile and present the total amount of consultancy fees that have been paid over say, the past ten years – and to whom. In the name of transparency… so that we can overdo even the Mo-Ibrahim Index?
Let us take the Light Railway Transport as an example. It is over twenty years that the idea was flagged. Ministers have come and gone, and so too a succession of experts and advisers, who have walked away with hefty sums as renumeration. How many reports must be lying dormant, long forgotten, no one can say for certain. The bus lane, modelled on the Curitiba success (and still going strong) in South America, does not appear to have caught the favour of successive decision-makers. And yet in this paper a road engineer, P Sungeelee, has advanced very cogent arguments, understandable to the layman because they sound quite reasonable, that demonstrate the long-term unsustainability of the LRT. There is no evidence that at the highest levels the debate of bus lane versus LRT has been seriously engaged – at least such is not available to the public. This is very serious for a matter that is going to have major consequences and cause fundamental shifts in the pattern of living of the whole population — in terms of the ecological impact and the fares, besides the sheer practical and logistic constraints of the running of the system.
Other mega-projects are displacing people and uprooting hundreds of acres of greenery where once there was prime agricultural land, and we are bound to wonder how all this fits in with the ‘Maurice Ile Durable’ concept? There is no doubt that construction activities generate employment, but as we fiercely replace fields by concrete, there is need for holistic planning, direction and strengthened regulatory oversight so that MID does not simply remain an empty slogan or a meaningless acronym.
About planning and prioritising, the mismatch and disconnect seem to be glaring. We are only into the beginning of summer, and it has not even been hot yet, but our reservoirs are already emptying at an alarming rate and people are suffering from extreme cuts in water supply in many places. As the population growth is not significant, meaning that the consumption of water per capita has not significantly increased, the reason for shortages is not only lack of rainfall, but increased consumption elsewhere – industry, construction – and, more importantly, the loss of nearly 50% in the distribution networks across the island. For how many long years has this been known, and why has it not been addressed as a priority issue? Instead, we have gone on ‘developing’, and our development is eating away massively into our green space besides. What is more critical from a survival point of view: building the LRT or providing an adequate supply of water to the people?
In the same vein, we are talking about encouraging the small planter community to ensure that we reduce our dependency on imports. How and where will vegetables grow if we adopt a hard-line stance towards displaced agricultural workers and on top of that are not in a position to provide them with the water that they need to produce? That is why, from the point of view of the concerned layman, it appears that there is no central coordinating mechanism that is taking a global and holistic look at all the issues and challenges that we are facing. A piecemeal and fragmented approach will not do. Individual ‘developers’ are focused on their own narrow views and interests, and do not care to see the links and collateral impacts between what they and others are doing.
If the Budget does not address these aspects through the government programmes by ensuring that the appropriate institutional, administrative, legal and other structures follow, then it will be just another exercise similar to those that have gone before. This is a chance to set direction and promote balance, which are determining for our future development, and we sincerely hope that the Budget will contain ample amounts of both. And it does not need any special wizardry to factor in these dimensions: the humane aspect has to be kept in the fore during preparation, and this is not, alas, the forte of the Bretton Woods brigade.
* Published in print edition on 19 November 2010