No vision — not even a camel

By TP Saran

And so the 2013 budget came to pass, unremarkable in content and insipid in delivery, at a level of intervention which we have got accustomed to in the National Assembly. It bore the stamp of an accountant. As someone said about the subject of accounts, ‘it’s not only dry, it’s dead, dead!’ The country was expecting to get a much-needed, clear sense of direction, which in this blessed country is usually given with an obvious economic bias by the Minister of Finance, for lack of a firm statement of government’s more encompassing political philosophy.

Under the circumstances, we are orphaned because we have neither, and so we will continue to drift along on a zigzagging course.

We will not go as far as the leader of the Opposition and its members, who find absolutely nothing positive in the budget. It’s the job of the Opposition to be bitter and negative, and they have not failed in their task. They have missed out on the inflation of 4.1%, a growth of 3.4% at a time when the developed world is hovering at under than 2% if not less on an average, the budget deficit of 2.5% and lower debt level of 54.2% of GDP.

However, despite this overall good-looking macro-economic picture, as the saying goes the devil is in the details, and although there are some indications of good intention strewn across the measures announced in the different sectors, there are issues of implementation that give rise to doubts about how far the budget will be able to fulfill its objectives. A glaring example is the 9000 hot meals to be given to children of ZEP schools. The Minister of Finance left the impression, in saying afterwards that he hopes one of the parents of a ZEP school child would get the contract for this ‘service’, that someone had already pre-qualified or had been identified! We trust that this is not so, and that there will be transparency in the allocation of the eventual contract(s).

Justifiably, fears have been expressed about the sheer logistics of this proposal, and equally about the hygiene aspects, since this is not a country with a tradition of delivering ‘meals-on-wheels’ or tiffins. Perhaps we ought to call in a consultant from Mumbai, famed for its super service of tiffin-carriers which caters to not thousands, but hundreds of thousands of customers at lunch everyday.

The steel, tiered tiffin containers are delivered spot on time from the beginning of the supply chain at the ‘production’ sites to the myriads of individuals in their offices – and the empty boxes collected after lunch – through a network made up of humans on foot, bicycles, and local trains. That service was given one the highest if not the highest performance rating for efficient delivery by the British journal The Economist a few years ago.

We can always learn from best practice elsewhere, isn’t it – but keep in mind we have neither that kind of hard working human resource, nor the bicycles, not to speak of trains! We hope that we will not have to wait for the light railway transport to be able to start the midday meal programme! And there’s been no food poisoning outbreak that we have heard of in Mumbai originating from the midday tiffins. Here is an example to emulate – if at all we can. Will we end up saying, yes we cannot?

Another measure that could have sent a stronger signal is internet access, which comes through as a wet duck since the proposed reduction in charges still does not make Mauritius as competitive as other countries. Nor will this help the government’s e-health project, which has been lumbering for years, with no sign of really coming into operation any time soon. It could not be too soon! – for it is already far delayed in many vital sectors.

Again, there has been no clear assumption of responsibility for timelines of implementation despite elaborate and well-thought out plans having been presented in the relevant sectors by experts of repute and calibre. Haggling about the modalities of procurement of hardware and so on have caused inexcusable delays, and the relative facilitation of internet access will have no impact at all unless government decides to take the bull by its horns. This has not happened so far, and there is no sign of an early resolution of this conundrum. Impatience is already stretched to the limit.

A similar kind of attentisme surrounds the ill-fated Maurice Ile Durable project that was announced with such fanfare in what seems like aeons ago, and which has not received any mention at all in the budget. After so many years, so many meetings, there is still no clarity about where that project is heading, a massive report from the consulting firm having been circulated to no avail.

Timid measures, like the one about compost, that have been mentioned in the budget, are no substitute for what could really have been a transformational affair for the country as a whole. Save for some inroads in the energy sector (eco-bulbs and solar energy) the MID has hardly had any significant impact compared to the expectations that were expected at its launching. Someone has to carry the can for this failure, but who is prepared to?

As for transformation, which must follow from a vision, come again… It is said that a camel is an animal designed by a committee. The high-sounding ESTP (Economic and Social Transformation Plan) that was to come up with a national vision proceeded by getting representatives of all ministries (we have lost count how many there are) around a table in a committee chaired by the Financial Secretary who was present at the first meeting for fleeting moments.

After the meeting, each ministry was asked to go back to berth and send in inputs for the vision. That MOFED could not transform the 24 or so sector visions into a shared national vision demonstrates that the ESTP was ill-fated from the start – how can you achieve transformation at the national level when this did not happen even at an initial stage?? And hence the budget’s lack of vision. Not even a camel…

But to be fair, a country vision is not the affair of any ministry. It emanates from the highest political level. Alas, we do not even have a default position.

On the whole, therefore, the budget leaves one with a feeling of more wait-and-see whereas people expected some clear-cut, firm resolves that would add up to an even clearer road ahead being traced out. Perhaps we will have better luck as we edge towards 2015? Do we have to place hopes in remake models?

* Published in print edition on 16 November 2012

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