Our immense problems and challenges

By TP Saran

Two weeks ago, in our article entitled ‘Can the PRB help in the unemployment problem’ we drew attention to the high level of youth unemployment in many developed economies of the West, including the richest nation on Earth, America. We expressed fears about a similar situation looming up in our country, and we note that some dailies have echoed our concerns, with the issue being flagged by interested parties. They too point to a certain lack of direction that is apparent at the highest levels of the State, the result of an absence of strategic thinking. There is a flawed preoccupation with matters of secondary importance for the time being, such as media law, and a raking up of issues that have already been dealt with and settled, such as the Facebook episode which was referred to afresh and maladroitly we think on the occasion of a religious celebration.

Lateral thinking to boost youth unemployment

In our article, we had cited Tim Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey, as advocating that ‘we must also look at certain traditional sectors from a slightly different angle, not only that of productivity’. He pointed out that ‘Certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people’s time and attention’ and gave as a ‘good example’ the caring professions of ‘medicine, social work, education’, emphasising that ‘expanding our economies in these directions has all sorts of advantages’ since ‘the time spent by these professions directly improves the quality of our lives.’

We concluded by expressing a hope that ‘Perhaps the PRB could take note of the professor’s enlightening remarks, and look afresh at the three sectors that he (NB: Professor Tim Jackson) has mentioned’, by looking at ‘innovative modes of employment rather than the traditional permanent, pensionable posts with “your whole time” being at the disposal of the government? Why not consider initial employment as facilitating entry to the world of work in a given sector with an exit option when one has attained a level of confidence to do so? – which would have the added collateral benefit of allowing newer entrants on the market to find their place and eventually their feet, in a continuous cycle?’

If the finality and centrality of all development is man, and employment the most important element that can keep him gainfully busy – an empty mind being the devil’s workshop — as a useful member of society and thus more likely to keep him away from potentially destructive behaviours, then the State must deploy all the means possible to make the maximum numbers of people get into the workforce. This means actively promoting entrepreneurship, and drastically cutting down on big government and avoidable wastage that would allow induction of more people in the professions alluded to and allied fields.

Instead, it appears that the thrust coming from the Ministry of Finance is the opposite of job creation, and instead increasing privatization. What has fiscal stimulus done? Has it not driven companies to close – Infinity for example, in which government had poured the people’s money down the rain, literally? And who walked all the way to the bank smiling? The sponsors of Aston Martin, surely?

Rethinking the transport issue holistically

Transport is another major issue, which has not received the concentrated thinking that it deserves, what with the zig-zag regarding the Light Railway Transport system. In his interview to this paper two weeks ago, Mr Mohamad Vayid expressed his reservations, adding arguments about the economic and logistical aspects to the more technical ones that P. Sungeelee had on a number of occasions presented in articles that MT published. Perhaps it is as a result of his reflections that the initial idea of the LRT being at ground level was changed. It is now to be on a raised rail platform.

But that still does address the matter holistically: will the benefits outweigh the projected cost of now Rs 23 billion, over ten times the initial estimate? And how will this be paid? – Clearly the country will have to take a massive loan. Our public debt is already soaring, and there are indications of a double dip recession coming. Under this looming threat, can Mauritius afford to take on more debt? And who will pay for this? – Obviously the future generations. Is this not in blatant contradiction to the Maurice Ile Durable concept, which is about protecting the future generations from the fallout of our present excesses and inadequately thought out decisions?

Why have we been expanding our road networks if the LRT has been seriously on the cards? There is clearly a mismatch, or perhaps the problem is even more fundamental: there is no coordination at all at the central level, the head not knowing what the tail is doing. There is still a strong body of opinion to the effect the Curitiba model of bus lane, suitably adapted, is more likely to meet our needs, allied with smarter, more efficient utilization and design of our road network based on available computer simulation models about how to make traffic flow more fluid. But successive governments have never shown any serious interest in the alternatives. Instead of saddling our future generations with unsustainable debts, shouldn’t we instead revisit the project instead of stubbornly sticking to our tunnel vision?

The increasing rich-poor gap

We are so naïve as to outright condemn Public-Private Partnerships or the involvement of the corporate sector in the development of the country. We even think that there is no other way to so. However, we think that the State must come in not only to facilitate such participation, as it is already doing through various fiscal, administrative and legislative measures, but also to exercise more robust oversight.

Percy Mistry, a great advocate of high networth projects, has written extensively in this paper about the enormous shortfall to the county from the way that its land resources have been and continue to be appropriated, both by the local conglomerates and by outsiders. He has even made concrete proposals of how a more prudential approach by government could have brought the State ample reserves of funds to be channeled towards infrastructure and other developments, and keep people in gainful employment. Allowing unbridled exploitation of our limited land is enriching the few at the expense of the poor, further increasing the already yawning gap. Is it too late to make midcourse corrections?

We flag these few problems for wider consideration, and hope that those who have the mandate to govern will take heed, instead of simply ruling.

* Published in print edition on 25 August 2012

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