Is the Truth and Justice Commission overstepping its remit?
Something very curious happened last Friday 15 July 2011 at a hearing of the TJC. An officer of the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life was summoned to be present and to depone about problems in CHA houses. As the session progressed questions were asked essentially by Mr B Moutoo, and were focused more on the aspects of social living such as overcrowding, which had nothing to do with asbestos per se. However, despite the fact that none of the members of the TJC had any knowledge of the health aspects of asbestos, and the clear irrelevance of this issue before the TJC, the officer from MOH was kind enough to provide the following information to it:
A report by a foreign expert, Addison, in 2020 had shown that the houses were in good condition inside and that the exposure of the inhabitants to asbestos was minimal. As such, it did not pose any risk to their health provided they maintained the good condition of the walls. Nevertheless, the MOH, in collaboration with the Ministry of Housing and Lands, carried out a medical examination survey from 2002 to 2003 on a sample of residents of EDC houses across the island, and none of them was found to suffer from any disease related to asbestos.
This what the Truth and Justice Commission Act lists as its functions:
4. Functions of the Commmisssion
The Commission shall perform such functions as are necessary for it to achieve its objects and, in particular, shall –
(a) conduct enquiries into slavery and indentured labour in Mauritius during the colonial period and may, for that purpose, gather information and receive evidence from any person;
(b) determine appropriate measures to be extended to the descendants of slaves and indentured labourers;
(c) enquire into a complaint, other than a frivolous and vexatious complaint, made by a person aggrieved by a dispossession or prescription of any land in which he claims had an interest; and
(d) prepare a comprehensive report of its activities and findings, based on factual and objective information and evidence received by it and submit its report to the President.’
The objects of the Commission shall be ‘to make an assessment of the consequences of slavery and indentured labour during the colonial period to the present,’ and ‘to make recommendations to the President on measures to be taken following its assessment and its findings with a view to achieving social justice and national unity.’
From the above, it is quite clear to anyone that the issue of asbestos has no material relevance to the functions and objects of the Commission as found in the Act. Asbestos problems have got no relation to the dispossession or prescription of land; it is merely a problem of housing.
It is pertinent to underline here that EDC houses were constructed in the wake of devastation caused by cyclones Alix and Carol in 1960. The country was then impoverished, and the prime plots of land were, as they still are, in the possession of the sugar oligarchy. The colonial, British government of the day had limited land option, and land for any type of social housing was available only at the periphery of occupied residential areas in the urban regions. That explains the location of the cités, which were in every way better than the camps on sugar estates. It goes without saying that the government of the day had to use construction material that was available then, given the resource constraints.
By any stretch of the imagination one cannot see this as a matter relating directly or indirectly to slavery or indentured labour, or to dispossession or prescription of land as has already been pointed out.
We are of the opinion that the Commission ought not to have considered this issue, so as to avoid wasting precious resource and the time of officials who have more important matters to attend to. However, now that it has, then this is a golden opportunity for it to assume the responsibility of sharing in its report and with the public at large and the authorities all the correct and objective evidence-based facts which the officer of MOH has imparted, and help to lay to rest the false, biased and unnecessarily scary information that the media has been filling the ears of the residents with.
As he was leaving, the officer of MOH was accosted by some members of the public residing in La Mivoie, who said, ‘eh, be gouvernman bizin kuonstrir lacaz pou nou!’
That says it all, and the Commission should take due note.