“We need all competencies for the country to advance, if not at least to decently survive”

Interview: Dr Michael Atchia

* ‘The closure and taking over of the MTC is utterly condemnable. Will any private institution be safe from unilateral takeover after that?’

* ‘The embers of discontent are out for now, mainly through communication with citizens. People rumble, protest when they, rightly so, do not understand what is happening…”

 


Dr Michael Atchia needs no introduction to our readers as a pedagogue with an interest in environmental matters. We chose to seek his views on his previous appeal for a government of national unity, on the directions the development of the country is taking and concrete ways forward for a greener, sustainable, more self-sufficient island when, like many, we are caught in the disruptions and upheavals caused by the Ukraine conflict.


Mauritius Times: We are living in volatile times that, just two months ago, we would not have imagined. The Ukraine war has proved to be a major blow to the global economy, and it would seem that dealing with its disruptive impacts is also proving to be a headache to most governments, including ours. How would you say the current government is doing in that respect?

Dr Michael Atchia: Minor country, minor world role. Nevertheless, Mauritius voted for the resolution condemning Russia for aggression in Ukraine at UN General Assembly. Others reacted. The worldwide effects of any war, especially this one involving a superpower, Russia can be far reaching, affecting food supply, energy, world trade, bilateral and group alliances such as EU, AU, SADC. 

We are remote from Ukraine and the direct effects of this war but not from the worldwide effects. This Government has shown awareness of food supplies problems (we import over 75% of what we consume), but measures to secure stability in supplies are still being addressed. Urgency here is necessary! For example, assessment of uncultivated land in various parts of the island followed by a strong national drive in promoting and planning the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. Exploration of the production of wheat and rice, our staple foods, in case of disruption in trade and shipping for these commodities. We know how Ukraine was, for example, one of the world’s major producers of wheat. In the meantime, the use of diplomatic channels with friendly countries for agreements for the supplies of staples (flour and rice) as well as fuels.

And what about a strategy of regular policing and surveillance of cultivated areas to discourage theft? And the real encouragement given to large entities to further go into food production?

It’s not only Government who should react. Other bodies and institutions must do their share, against war, for peace, hence for preservation of world trade.

I would like to bring to the attention of this paper’s readers that the Mauritius Academy of Science (MAST) of which I am the current President came up 24 February 2022 with a strong statement entitled ‘Scientists Against War’. It was signed by me as well as by Dr Yashwant Ramma and Dr Salem Saumtally.

Published locally it went international on the website of ISC, the International Science Council. Result: several organisations issued similar statements, adding to the pressure for peace. Some excerpts from the statement read as follows:

‘Solving conflicts through rational dialogue

We scientists, members of the Mauritius Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) are against and condemn all forms of war, such as what is happening at present in Eastern Europe. The world must use peaceful and rational dialogue to solve any existing conflicts.

‘The cost of warfare, even a limited war, in terms of human lives, destruction of resources and pollution of the environment, is extremely high. We can never forget that 100 million humans (half of them civilians) were killed during two World Wars and numerous other conflicts, in the last century, the 20th.

‘Most modern weapons release pollutants, which in no time spread around the world and are obnoxious to the entire planet. Nuclear weapons are a prime example of such weapons, so is biochemical warfare. In an era where humanity as a whole is struggling against a pandemic and is engaged in the long-term struggle to prevent global warming with all its negative consequences for life on the planet, no one has the legal, moral, ethical right to use and unleash any weapons as means of ‘solving’ conflicts.’

* You came out some time back in support of the proposal made in favour of a government of national unity. But this has been shot down by the main opposition parties, and it’s not certain whether the ruling party itself would welcome such an arrangement. Do you think it’s is still valid in view of the volatile times we are living in?

A government of unity or national unity (GUN) is, in my view, a cohabitation formed following a negotiated agreement between different parties to manage a difficult national situation. Such an initiative usually comes after an election.

In the British context, an arrangement such as Lib-Lab (a working arrangement between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party) or Lib-Con (Liberal Party-Conservatives) would be a simple alliance, but a Lib-Lab-Con government on the other hand would be a government of national unity. In India any planned post-election alliances between the Congress or BJP and other parties will not have any significance after a landslide victory of Modi. In the United States, the coexistence between a Democratic President and Republican chambers, or similarly in France between left and right, remotely resemble governments of national unity without formally being so.

In the local context, the proposal was made by Democracy Watch Mauritius (DWM) in the national interest. At this stage we are not re-tabling the idea of a government of national unity (as proposed by me for DWM on 30th May 2014, in Le Mauricien and re-tabled again by an ex-minister recently). But today for an effective governance structure we strongly recommend that representatives of the government, the opposition, the private sector and the civil society consider urgently the setting up of a National Crisis Committee – to listen, discuss, propose appropriate measures and communicate with the population. In the present circumstances, we sincerely believe that this is the best way forward. Will the Prime Minister take the lead? The ball is in his court.

* Judging by the government’s response to the citizens protests two weeks back and its heavy-handed manner in which it has been tackling certain issues, namely the MTC/GRA tussle, it does not seem worried about its political future. Do you share that view?

The closure and taking over of the MTC is utterly condemnable as it seems done to favour the same activity (i.e., horse racing) to be run by people very close to the government. Will any private institution/body/structure/bank/clinic/factory/industry be safe from unilateral takeover after that?

What we are talking about here is totally different from compulsory acquisition in the public interest such as houses on the path of the new metro, which is unavoidable, but with proper compensation given to the affected people.

* We do not hear the rumblings of discontent in relation to price rises anymore although their root causes have been but partially addressed. Do you think the embers have been put out?

Yes, the embers of discontent are out for now, mainly through communication with citizens to explain how in this only one world, we are totally dependent on imports of what we do not produce and in time of reduced supplies, on world price rise.

We, as a small country, cannot fight world prices. We buy or go without.

People rumble, protest when they, rightly so, do not understand what is happening. And more importantly they do not know what can be done to reverse negative situations.

The answer is doing our very best to produce (including drastic increase of food and minerals from the sea, from our 1 million sq km of Mauritian EEZ), ensuring a large degree of food security (from the current 20% of our needs in 2022 to 60-80% within 8-12 years. Work hard for it: Government, private sector, citizens, for energy and food self-sufficiency soon.

Added to that, the obvious action: buy what we produce (aster ‘Made in Moris’) produce what we need and, most importantly, reduce waste, all of which citizens can do.

Take the issue of petrol prices; we import 100% of it, hence we are totally dependent on markets such as Asia and the Middle East. In any case the price of fossil fuels will go on increasing till 2050, and then be simply unavailable to small buyers like us when petrol, a non-renewable resource, runs out. An answer of course is to set up now a fleet of electric vehicles, running out of solar energy-driven ‘filling’ stations, totally independent of imported petrol and diesel.

As one of the world’s recognised environmental experts, I have for the last several years, from Duval to Padayachy as Ministers of Finance, proposed a plan to make us largely independent of fossil fuel. Not retained. Why? It’s not proposed by a foreign expert? Or does it have to do with vested interest such as from vehicle importers? I do not know. Here is a gist of my proposal, again repeated for this Budget 2022-23 – the objective being to make Mauritius a country independent of imported petrol:

A fleet of electric vehicles + the metro will ensure our mobility when petrol becomes too expensive or is not available. And to the consumer a drastic reduction in his/her “petrol” bill. Fortunately, the CEB is already planning for solar charging stations for such vehicles.

In 2014 there was only one Nissan electric vehicle available. Today many vehicles manufacturers make hybrid and electric vehicles, such as Nissan itself, Renault, Ford, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, BMW, Jaguar, Mahindra, Peugeot, Chevrolet, Citroën, Fiat, Honda, Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, Mercedes-Benz, TESLA, etc.

The four proposals are:

  1. Electric vehicles imported duty-free.
  2. Democratise the import of zero emission vehicles with a subvention of Rs 200,000 per vehicle, limited to one par family. We already give subventions for solar water heater, why not for cars?
  3. When batteries will be more efficient and cheaper, we can assemble electric vehicles here, including (using the latest technology) convert old second-hand petrol vehicles into electric ones. Also, as from right now all duty-free vehicles authorized for civil servants would have to be electric cars.
  4. Increase of 20%, then 50%, of custom duties on all petrol and diesel vehicles imported.

* To be fair, however, there is only so much that the government can do about this particular issue; the private sector should also be doing its bit to help alleviate the difficulties of the consumer, don’t you think?

The combination of government, opposition, private sector, NGOs, institutions and citizens is crucial in times of crisis — to analyze, get to appropriate solutions and implement them.

A call for such collaboration is essential. It does absolutely require Government not to name and appoint only its people (nou bann) at the detriment of 80% of other competencies. We need all competencies for the country to advance, if not at least to decently survive.

* There is presently the tussle opposing the CEB to the Independent Power Producer Terragen Ltd, which has suspended its production of electricity due to the rise in prices of coal – from USD 206 end February to USD 430 on 2 March, according to l‘Express (its spot price was USD 308.20 on 4 May 22, according to Markets Insider). If we go by Energy minister Joe Lesjongard’s comments – Terragen Ltd would have apparently accumulated profits to the tune of Rs1.5 bn from 2012 to 2021 – he would be suggesting that the IPP would also not doing its bit for the country. Do you share that view?

No. The world prices for coal have exploded, partly due to war and also abuse by exporters. We have the solution here which Terragen Ltd has been so successfully implementing, namely combine coal with a biofuel, namely bagasse to produce electricity, and gradually reduce coal and increase bagasse, including exploring other biofuels, such as bamboo, as so often proposed.

As research has shown, the use of biofuels, made from plants which grow using sunlight, is entirely sustainable. At present the world including us a tiny small island state is running on non-renewable fossil fuels, which is unsustainable. The sooner we make the shift the better!

* For having been associated with education for a long time, how do you react to the latest Education Statistics, which indicate a gradual fall in the intake of students at all levels – from pre-primary to tertiary – especially in public schools?

Largely a population problem. As Monique Dinan rightly said, we must repopulate Mauritius. The diversity of schools in Mauritius, namely public, private, confessional and international is a huge contributor to quality in education and must be preserved. But recently the PSEA has moved against this, increasing its unnecessary control over private and confessional colleges. Utterly condemnable.

* It’s said that if the middle class start abandoning public schools or government-run health services, it’s the quality of these services that will come down. Is that indeed the case?

Parental choice is crucial and indeed pivotal in the choice of schools for their children. With, as we move up the age ladder, the choice of where to do HSC, or a degree, being given to the students himself/herself as to choose, depending of course on previous results and availability of seats. No, I do not see abandonment of any of these four sectors, but greater demand for mobility. This is a good thing.

Same indeed for the health sector and the combination of public and private facilities. We must recognise the huge efforts made by successive governments from SSR’s onwards to provide free health services to the population. Take for example the excellent cardiac units we have in the public sector and the major improvement made to the ENT for the treatment of Covid-19 cases.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 6 May 2022

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