45 years of Independence
At a time when we are celebrating 45 years of Independence and the later passage to Republic status, we can reflect on what has been achieved and what remains on the burner, and everybody, naturally, will have very personal views on these questions. What follows are therefore only a few unabashedly subjective remarks!
The road to social and political emancipation has been long and arduous, fighting heavily stacked odds and institutional violence, marked by a generation of “freedom fighters” from all walks of life and of all hues, culminating with political independence on a backdrop of communal tension and fears. How many of our youth today, bred on the image of a colonial power only too keen to hand over independence to a tiny sugar island condemned to poverty and subsistence, have a historical overview of the harsh struggles and some of the key players who held up the banner of social justice and human dignity?
Having here to avow my own skimpy and fragmented historical appreciation, a documentary brief, whether widely distributed in hard copy or on a prominent website, would have been essential to say the least. Can we celebrate independence without having an unbiased, non-controversial recap of how we got to this stage and against what reactionary forces? Don’t we need to share widely that sense of perspective, in order to lend meaning to the present and vitality to the continuing battles for social progress, inclusive development and nationhood?
Even though Sir Gaetan Duval was to later express regret, the virulence of divisive politics left long-lasting scars. Unable to present a united front, we had to do with a constitutional system that entrenched a Best-Loser system to provide some minimum safeguard communal representation. MPs elected by this system were lambasted by the rising MMM as “l’imposte” MPs, yet neither in 1982 when it gained full power, nor in the 1991 or 1995 alliances, nor again from 2000-05 when it was running the show and had the required majority to do so, did that party attempt an electoral reform that would do away with the communal declaration of candidates or the Best-Loser system.
The MSM has, it seems, no clear position. The LP-PMSD alliance, itself divided on this issue, has no mandate, still less a parliamentary majority for such an important reform and many have asked that it be the subject of wider consultation and informed debate than the private rounds of “koz-koze” between parliamentary parties and their leaderships. The proposal therefore for a White Paper that sums up succinctly the key objectives and the different options of reform – there have been many formulated — is a necessary and welcome one.
The hotly divisive pre-independence politics left other major scars. Divided, we were unable to effectively oppose the quasi-unilateral excision of the Chagos archipelago by a colonial power working hand in glove with a US administration still in the throes of cold war and superpower military standoffs. Historians may dither or disagree on the finer points, but no one disputes that the excision was illegitimate, flouting UN resolutions and that the issue of recognising our full sovereignty over that part of national territory that was, in connivance, leased out by British isles to the US has to be pursued by all intelligent legal and geo-political means available to us.
The purported Marine Protected Area proposal is “perfidious Albion” at its best; after all, barely 150 years ago the Foreign Office was sending a naval flotilla to force China to purchase the opium of British traders, rogues and vagabonds! True, the middle East harbours today more dangers than the cold war ever birthed and a western military presence can be of comfort but this should not impact sovereignty and the upcoming lease-renewal of the Chagos may provide a real window of opportunity for progress on this issue.
For the longer-term, in a changing world where Far and Middle Eastern powers are taking a greater economic and geo-political weight, where terrorism is never far, and natural resources, including fossil fuel, provide a platform for future tussles and crises, do we need some sort of think-tank to continuously brew and mull on how best to safeguard our strategic national interests and, subsidiarily, the harvestable potential of our marine Economic Zone? There is no Maurice Ile Durable without a geo-political dimension. Lest we forget, we need food, fuel, tourism, financial services, productive investment, security from terrorism, protection from ocean pilferage or pollution, and so many other things through intelligent agreements with the outside world.
Geopolitical Mauritius was probably a prime consideration for SSR in the sixties and seventies as, with limited maneuvering room, he played astutely the wider game with France, UK, China and India in particular. It was no mean feat with ever-ready bickering snipers in the background. But the foundations were laid and today, it appropriately befalls Navin Ramgoolam to use his considerable charisma, skills and acumen on the international scene to deepen that strategic necessity and give it some structural permanence.
The time was ripe too, as the world was rocked by a massive crisis and saw the resilience of emerging new powerhouses of development. The snipers will continue to hark and bark, some obsessively targeting India and China, but our country’s strategic interests need to confidently mesh in with evolving realities of the wider world and expand our circle of traditional allies.
Consensus beyond reach
There are other areas where the body politic should not find consensus beyond reach. Ensuring strategic security of energy supply and distribution is one such area. We cannot have a “Yes, but not in my backyard!” for every planned development, whether wind, solar, heavy oil, coal or coal-bagasse, so long as sites are identified by in-depth validation studies. We do not wish for offloading or power cuts as in giants South Africa, India or China nor do we wish CEB to use costly heavy fuel or gas to generate electricity.
We cannot continue to have a renewable resource – bagasse – remain a sore issue where massive private profits are at the expense of the country. The report commissioned by government and the sugar oligarchy should be made public. Can Sechilienne-SIDEC, the successor to various obsolete French industries like Charbonnages de France, be induced to at least review the unacceptable elements of its existing IPP contracts? Can we learn to be careful about World Bank advice when they are clearly no subject matter experts, or European Investment Bank advice, whose mandate is clearly for private sector support?
What is surprising is that we are, as a country, moving on many fronts. Impressive investments in roads, drains, and sewage disposal are transforming the country. Tertiary and technical institutions abound and have given substance to the knowledge hub, providing unparalleled opportunities for those who don’t have the means for overseas studies. The new airport, the planned dams, the LRT system in the offing, the reasonable levels of FDI, are other tributes to an economy that has shown remarkable resilience and growth since 2006, keeping unemployment to manageable levels.
Obviously there are continuing challenges to revamp and make every administration more effective and efficient. But, against all odds, from the state of desolation left behind in 2005, facing severe international storms, the end of preferences, changing political circumstances and drama, the vagaries of climate, without natural resources, we can count our blessings.
We need that sense of perspective and direction to continue focusing on the country ‘s development and develop further the sense of belonging and nationhood.