Identity Politics

V. Bhardwaj  

Today as the millennium heads towards its adolescence, it will be worthwhile to mark a pause and think hard on the Vicar-General criticism, in the context of his New Year’s message, of the “ rodère ek donère boute” syndrome present in our system. Should we be surprised that our whole system has degenerated to nothing but rodères boutes. Have we not tolerated, even encouraged them? 

Were we not found wanting when our institutions were crumbling, when insecurity prevails; when we sided with an elite that is incapable of erudite opinion and paralysed in its own elitism, with an intelligentsia that preferred to have no political voice; when we watch passively as the media loses ground and its moral fibre while government tightens its grip on the system; when we make our choice by aligning ourselves with the groups that most closely speak for us. And in so doing, our congregation in this millennium is by communities of interests, not just communities of locality; when we allow ourselves to be goaded by a mass-media that stupidly mirrors the desires of the public and generates all kinds of tension and mobilisation and when it takes up a supposedly popular or partisan cause and runs with it nonetheless subject to viewer ratings. 

Globalisation, liberalisation, new markets and technologies have become all-pervasive in our everyday life. But these developments bring in their wake insecurity and volatility. The greatest danger posed by unrestricted globalisation is that it may exacerbate the problems of nagging poverty and uneven development, and create grave infrastructural mismatches. The widening of economic and social disparities accentuates the problem of social exclusion and marginalisation and intensifies feelings of frustration. Panic and fear spread fast. Appeals to emotion leave appeals to logic in the dust. And emotion moves people more powerfully than fear, and stirs more powerful emotions. Because the subject is so complicated, people are unable to balance their emotional reactions with rational ones. Moreover, appeals to fear, anger and hate really gain traction when ignorance is wide and deep. These constitute real threats to social cohesion and integration and have far-reaching implications for the economic and political stability of the country.

The Guru of the Third Way, Anthony Giddens, reckons that with globalisation, autonomy and freedom tend to replace the hidden power of tradition with more open discussion and dialogue. But these freedoms bring other problems in their wake. A society living on the other side of nature and tradition is one that calls for decision making in everyday life. The dark side of decision-making is the rise of addictions and compulsions. As the influence of tradition and custom shrink on a world-wide level, the very basis of our self-identity — our sense of self — changes. Self-identity has to be created and recreated on a more active basis than before.

Those growing up after this globalisation and liberalisation brouhaha no longer go through life’s grind with the sole objective of looking for avenues of escape. They have been brought up in a never-ending diet of hype, of success stories without any sense of cultural inferiority. More so the empowerment unleashed by the technologies of the 20th century — the liberalisation of the airways for example — have given people a peep into other lives and other possibilities. They are fed up of accepting the choices made supposedly in their interest by those who are not one of theirs. In addition, the frustrations of a repressive working life go in search of a safety valve. They have suddenly become more socially conscious, they feel that they have to refashion the democratic set-up their way and find that the easiest way out – instead of allowing social consensus to sustain its energy and develop as profoundly as it needs to. They tend to fall back on themselves, or on the vested interest of various groups and trapped by the contradictions inherent in a plural society with its diverse communities.

These social tensions are shaping politics and we thus see the rise and consolidation of identity politics. Lucia Michelutti of the South Asia Centre calls it the Vernacularisation of Democracy, that is, identity or popular politics thrives when ideas and practices enter and transform domains of life like family life, caste, kinship, ethnicity and popular religion. Ethnic groups and castes increasingly become competitive horizontal groups; their main demand is social justice in the narrow terms of caste and community socio-economic uplift. These new vernacular leaders often tend to pitch their message and policies and draw support from their own caste/communities rather than appeal across castes and communities. These groups use a variety of cultural resources such as the redefinition of their identity, myths of origin and heroic traditions to refashion their communities and reconfigure who belongs to their community. The mobilisation strategies of rival groups contribute to competing ideas of social justice which create not only stronger caste and ethnic identities but legitimize low-level conflict and division.

Recently we have seen that the competition over State resources and for government posts have shaped what some groups think they are entitled to (their share of the gâteau national) and what they think other communities are having — a relatively greater share than what they merit. Lies, damned lies and misleading statistics flourish. By focusing so much energy on a specific political agenda, practitioners of identity politics are just as closed-minded or exclusionary as those they claim are oppressing or marginalising their group. For example the rejection of CPE system should not be argued from the narrow perspective of communal or identity politics; but because it is the concern of every Mauritain that we are allowing such an archaic system based merely on rote memorisation to kill creativity.

The idea that an outsider could not possibly understand the problems or needs of a specific group creates more problems in the political arena. The surprise is that we accept their vile ways, their hate mongering; they are also the rodères boutes who tend to forget that those living in glass houses should not be throwing stones at others. 

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The EPZ sector: Still fumbling

Back in 1995, our protagonists (to be known later as TINAwallahs) had the right solutions for all the problems of the EPZ. “ ….il y a eu l’erreur capital de ne pas demander la dérogation de Third Country Fabric à temps. Et pendant deux ans ou on n’a pas eu la dérogation… 20,000 emplois ont été perdus dans le textile……”

But with the dismantling of the MultiFibre Agreement (MFA), no government could not have done anything to prevent the loss of jobs and stop the Hong Kongese and Taiwanese firms from leaving Mauritius because the era of quotas had come to the end in 2005. Between 2000-05, the backloading of the quotas caused the loss of some Rs 24,000 jobs.

There were also the proposals that “il y a un rapport d’un high powered committee sur la Zone Franche qui dort dans un tiroir et qui préconise une série de mesures correctives et incitatives qu’il fallait prendre pour amortir les coûts ». They had also recommended recourse to equity funds; we have seen the quasi-equity funds in operation recently under Additional Stimulus Package and we can safely say that the EPZ firms would have preferred direct relief spending which is a more powerful stimulus than equity investment in troubled businesses and is better aimed at the neediest. Four years down the lane, despite an earlier bout of depreciation of the rupee to artificially boost the sector, the plethora of fairs and shows of Entreprise Mauritius and the Additional Stimulus Package to restructure les canards boîteux, our TINAwallahs seem to have failed in revigorating the sector: 94 firms in the sector have closed down and 5000 jobs have been lost since 2005. The recent US ITC Report ‘Sub-Saharan African Textile and Apparel Inputs: Potential for Competitive Production’ highlights the constraints faced by the sector, namely ,the rising costs in terms of energy, land prices, and labour, which impede sector competitiveness. “… For example, one firm stated that spinning is more expensive in Mauritius than in China because of energy costs.”

So again the divisive issue of the strong v/s weak rupee is back on the agenda. The TINAwallahs have yet to deliver on their promise to provide appropriate corrective measures to enhance the sector’s competitiveness. Meanwhile we will have to keep on trying to withstand and ward off the pressures of the exporters’ lobby for a weaker rupee and we seem to be having the support of the Bank of Mauritius in striking the right balance for the exchange rate. “We are concerned with the exchange rate of the rupee; we have done such a good job on the exchange rate front that people are now complaining about the rupee at its current level. They want the dollar to trade at Rs35; we have saved consumers money because of the Rs5 less that the dollar costs, and that is money that has stayed in the pockets of consumers,” Rundheersing Bheenick, Governor of the Bank of Mauritius reassures us. 

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Zone d’Education Prioritaire (ZEP): Have we passed?

The failure rates in the ZEP schools are being decried by some of the main stakeholders of the education sector — « le gouvernement a cru bien faire en copiant le système éducatif français. C’est un échec cuisant. » Others are proposing a different curriculum and programme for the ZEP schools that will extend over eight rather than the present six years of primary schooling. Still some decry the measures adopted to patch up the system : « C’est n’est pas en instaurant un ZEP Council, qui est censé se réunir deux fois l’an que le ministre Bunwaree résoudra les problèmes des ZEP ».

The ZEP system was set up with the main objective of providing the necessary environment conducive to favourable learning conditions for children living mostly in the less developed regions based on specific pedagogical programmes. The strategy is to reduce school inequalities and in a broader perspective to address social inequalities by providing equal opportunities to all primary school children.

The essence of the project is to build a bridge between the school and the social environment of the pupil at his home. It was essentially conceptualized to give a new orientation to teaching and learning processes in the classroom by adopting techniques of inclusive pedagogies. The latter consideration puts the child at the centre of any pedagogical undertakings. The work and the enhancement of the child’s mental and psychological capabilities are closely monitored and followed up by the class teacher and the latter reports the changes in a Pupil’s Progress Card. The same is made available to the parents and other agents who have at heart the interest of the pupil’s progress.

Parent Mediators working closely with the Head Teachers of the ZEP schools were to foster a new understanding on the value of education. The Parent Mediators were trained in techniques aimed at talking to parents and involving them in work sessions on life values. The Parent Mediators, the Head Teacher and the teachers in the school work out and identify a list of needy students who cannot perform due to lack of basic needs. The Pupil Progress Card is given to the Parent Mediators as a source of invaluable information as the same card will contain not only the academic performance of the child but also his/her psychological profile. The Parent Mediators will then either work with those parents in group sessions or if the case demands, these officers will visit the parents at their place and try to understand the problems faced by the parents of the child.

The Parent Mediators are useful social agents in the ZEP Project which also promises to knit a network of partnership with NGOs and community-based organisations to help securing a better environment for the development of the child. During the course of the field work, the Parent Mediators identify and contact appropriate NGOs and community-based organisations most likely to give a helping hand in their work. Parent Mediators offer essentially psychological support to the parents facing problems while the NGOs and government provide for material assistance to needy families.

Have we really tried these? Have we exhausted all the possibilities of improving the ZEP system? One of the top linguists Dev Virahsawmy believes that the “résultats sont de plus en plus décevants. Car on a oublié de revoir la politique de langue… Si on pouvait donner à ces enfants une éducation dans leur langue maternelle…” At Stanley GS, the success rate is 60.78%. At Bois des Amourettes ZEP school, it is 61.11%. What is their secret? They believe in the system as it was conceptualized and thus gave it a chance to succeed by at least by “encadrer les parents avant de parfaire l’éducation de leurs gosses.” And the possibilities are there to continue refining the system for better outcomes. Only then can we say that we have passed!!! 

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Financial Times: Lotto and Household Debt 

The recent issue of the Financial Times that extensively covered Mauritius and its successful reform programme seems to have missed out on the prevailing high unemployment rate of 7.4% which had reached 8.3% in the second quarter of 2009. In the third quarter of 2009 it is estimated that there are some 42,100 unemployed comprising 14,900 males (35%) and 27,200 females (65%). More than 100,000 Mauritians are living with less than Rs 4,000 per month. And 40,000 families are caught in the debt spiral.

What’s more shocking is that 27% of the working population are having problems in meeting their debt liabilities. We find it ironic and shameful that in such a situation where the numbers in debt are gathering pace and the size of the personal debt mountain facing many households is peaking and when our domestic savings rate has reached a catastrophic low figure of 11.4% — one of the lowest over decades — the authorities have given the grren light to the Lotto games. Some poor households are betting as much as Rs 100 per week. This is a tax on the poor for the money that goes to government’s coffers and is redistributed through its social schemes never reach the poor.

Who will deny it that in the education system, for example, the elite captures all the redistribution? So is it in the health sector. Instead of playing with the budget figures to show a higher budget deficit than what has actually been realised by including tranfers and not what has been spent over the period, some of the extra revenue collected could have been targeted at reducing reliance on Lotto receipts. From rodeurs boutes, we are painfully graduating to a “nation zougadeurs” as predicted and coined by Sir Satcam Bollell some years back. 

V. Bhardwaj

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