“Whenever there is injustice; we cannot and should not remain quiet”

Encounter: Armoogum Parsuramen, Chairman – Global Rainbow Foundation

* ‘We have noted since 1995 the increasing influence of money politics during elections and this in many cases has violated the rules of democracy’

* ‘It is the right of our senior citizens to receive a well-deserved pension, and that should not be seen as charity”

Armoogum Parsuramen, who started life as an Education Officer, went on to serve four terms as Member of Parliament until 1995. His career then took an international dimension at the World Bank and UNESCO. Rich with this experience, he decided to come back to Mauritius and dedicate himself to a cause that he had at heart from the beginning, especially given his modest origins and the hardships he and his family had faced: service to the vulnerable section of society, the Persons with Disabilities, and senior citizens through the setting up of the Global Rainbow Foundation and the University of Third Age Mauritius respectively. In what follows he gives us a lucid account of his journey and of the work that his NGOs are doing.

 * After 14 years devoted to politics, you left to join UNESCO and thereafter started in 2012 the Global Rainbow Foundation with the aim of ’empowering differently-abled persons and vulnerable groups through education and training, and to provide them with the opportunity for holistic human development’. How has been the journey so far?

I wish to share a brief overview of my career and political engagement. I started in the field of education as a secondary school teacher in 1978. I was elected as a Village Councilor in 1978 and became Chairman of the District Council North in 1979. I then served as Member of the Parliament from 1982 to 1995, four consecutive terms in all. I honourably provided my leadership as Minister of Education, Arts and Culture and Minister of Education and Science. I was credited as being the architect of the Mauritian 10-Year Education Master Plan, which spearheaded the development of the Mauritius education system

After serving 13 years as Minister of Education, I decided to take a break from politics. In 1997, I was appointed at the World Bank as Senior Education Policy Adviser and Coordinator of the education component of the United Nations Special Initiative for Africa (UNSIA) administered by the World Bank.

For two years, I was actively engaged with African ministers on education reforms, ensuring full involvement of teachers’ trade unions, parents & teachers’ associations and other stakeholders. 

In 1998, I was offered the post of Director of UNESCO’s Division for the Renovation of Secondary and Vocational Education. In 2000 I became Director of the same organization’s Regional Bureau for Education in Africa before returning to UNESCO Headquarters in Paris in 2004 to lead both the Secretariat of UNESCO Executive Board and that of its Governing Bodies; serving therefore as Secretary of both the Executive Board and the General Conference. 

During 14 years at these two institutions, I contributed to and gathered wide-ranging experiences in the field of education development through global initiatives. I also had gained extensive experience in diplomacy and in international relations at UNESCO in my twin capacities as Secretary. Grateful for all these experiences and with the strong urge to use them to do something for my country , I pondered upon what to do next: should I go back to politics or embark on a different mission? 

After careful deep introspection on my journey from my birth to that period in 2011, I chose to set off on a path of service to humanity. This led to the creation of the Global Rainbow Foundation. 

The Global Rainbow Foundation was founded on the 11th November 2011. It was the realization of a dream that I had cherished since my childhood, fighting against injustice, discrimination and suffering of the most vulnerable people of society. I was also guided by my international experience which exposed me to similar situations of working for vulnerable people in Africa. This further crystallized my conviction and determination to serve the most vulnerable section of our society. 

I chose the cause of Persons with Disabilities. Being a witness to the reality of the lives of people with disabilities in Mauritius and around the world, I saw a clear signal that concrete action had to be taken for this community of people. Persons with disabilities faced countless challenges and were discriminated against, missing many opportunities to rise and shine.

* Would you say that your current engagement in the social field, interacting with the differently-abled and vulnerable people and the elderly has been giving you more personal satisfaction than could be achieved in politics?

Ten years dedicated to serving Persons with Disabilities in Mauritius and Overseas through Global Rainbow Foundation and being the founder of University of Third Age Mauritius – this is for me a source of accomplishment, especially when I would see on the faces of so many Persons with Disabilities how the Global Rainbow Foundation has transformed their lives, brought smiles to their faces as opposed to their situation of anguish and despair. All this has given me a great sense of fulfillment. I must also say that determination to dedicate myself to vulnerable groups was also the result of my deep gratitude to my mother and father, to the people of Mauritius for having elected me and enabled me to serve as Minister of Education in Mauritius and also for the wonderful international journey I had during this period of time. 

This feeling of gratitude was so profound that I felt that I had to give back to society. Looking at the ten years within my NGO, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction to have realized most of my dreams.

In addition to serving people with disabilities, I also realized having myself reached the stage of elderly person that there was a need to work towards the welfare of our senior citizens who have done so much for Mauritius. As the builders of Mauritius, they have suffered a lot during the colonial period, facing economic difficulties to bring to us the Mauritius that we know now. So I felt it was equally important for me to do something for this group of people as well. The University of Third Age is one modest but very meaningful contribution to give back to our senior citizens the feeling of dignity and respect.

Many senior citizens have confided to me with a lot of joy in their eyes that they feel so much happiness of being healthy with a sense of aging beautifully.

They come to the University and study in many areas that they could not do before, something that they cherish a lot. When I meet them for their graduation ceremony, I can feel their joy and happiness at wearing their gown and receiving their certificates. We have also organized an international conference which was yet another great achievement for the members of the University.

* Has this social engagement through the Foundation given you another perspective on the evolution of Mauritian society as well as an exposure to the realities of life in Mauritius hidden from the public view?

After my physical absence for 14 years from Mauritius, I was able to see the reality of life of elderly groups and persons with disabilities in Mauritius and most of it was hidden from the public view. I must say I recognize certainly from 1995 to 2011 that the country has experienced major development. Many measures have been taken by successive governments to improve the quality of life of the people but one thing that I found which was hidden from the public is the fate of the vulnerable group of Mauritius. This is how, being inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who said that “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”, and Mother Teresa – “A life not lived for others is not a life”, I felt a profound reason to dedicate my mission to serve the neediest people of the society.

This deep sense of mission is what is needed. Many people do not know the reality of people who are excluded or bedridden. Exposing this reveals big societal problems and issues that have to be tackled in a sustainable and holistic manner. This further motivated me to ensure the fundamental rights of persons with disabilities should be fought for and this cannot be done by ad hoc assistance and support, but requires fundamental policy changes. 

The present government in its first mandate from 2014-2019 promised in its electoral manifesto to bring a Disability Bill with the view to eliminate barriers and discrimination in the lives of persons with disabilities. Six years have elapsed and until now the Disability Bill is an unfulfilled promise. 

GRF therefore launched a major advocacy campaign on the Disability Bill with all the stakeholders, Members of Parliament and international organizations to support us in this noble cause so that the Disability Bill would become a reality in Mauritius. The Global Rainbow Foundation’s 2021 mission is to draft the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2021 (RPWD) within the tailored stipulations of the UNCRPD to ensure a Disability-inclusive legislation in Mauritius. When confronted with a situation of injustice and discrimination, we need to fight and advocate for structural changes to ensure that the fundamental rights of those people are recognized and enforced in a non-discriminatory way.

 * On the other hand, besides the existence of charitable institutions, we see a growing number of private homes being set up mostly for middle-income sections of the population and the well-off. There could be valid practical or medical reasons why this phenomenon is gaining ground in the country. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Mauritius is faced with a growing ageing population. Today, we have some 240 000 persons aged 60 and above; in 2050, 30% of the population will be senior citizens. This is a big challenge for the government and for the families with elderly members. However, this should not be a reason for older people to no longer receive the love, care and medical attention they deserve.

In fact, this group of people is vulnerable and deserves our respect and attention because they have contributed so much to the development of this country. We should not look at our elderly citizens as a burden but should be grateful to them for all the work they have done to serve the country in difficult circumstances. Therefore, we need to remind ourselves of our duty to provide them with their well-deserved pension. It is their right and that should not be seen as charity to our senior citizens.

We need to have a holistic development programme for them. We need to learn about the experiences of other countries, in particular China. With the increase of ageing population, we have witnessed a rise in the numbers of homes. This is probably the answer to provide better conditions to the senior citizens but unfortunately many of them do not provide the optimum services to the seniors and this is a matter of concern. It’s good that we have more homes but this should be properly organized and regulated.

 * The GRF invites donations to help finance its various programmes. How has been the response from the corporate sector and from individuals generally, and what does it say about the spirit of philanthropy in Mauritian society?

We have traditions of solidarity among the people which started during the days of colonization amidst indentured labourers. 

At Global Rainbow Foundation, I must say we are satisfied with the support we get from the corporate sector for our activities. The foundation does not receive any grant from the government and therefore it has to raise funds for its activities and serve the people. Many private companies do endorse our projects. We also receive small contributions from individuals. 

With the new modalities of National Social Inclusion Foundation, NGOs get regular funding for ongoing projects and this ensures sustainability. But many NGOs still face many difficulties to raise funds. I think it is time for the government to have an evaluation of its CSR policy based on the experiences so far and come forward with a revised action plan which could help to address all these issues and at the same time ensure that civil society can carry its role fully in the social and economic development of Mauritius. 

 * Our society has grown on the foundations of the welfare state, and we find more NGOs like the GRF playing a role in the lives of the old-aged and the vulnerable. Do you think the government can do much more than what it is already doing for these groups, or would it be best left to the NGOs to join in the public social welfare programmes?

In fact, it is a remarkable achievement in Mauritius that we have over the years developed a strong welfare state, providing a wide range of free services to the population in various key areas like education, health, social security and many more. NGOs like Global Rainbow Foundation and many others are also making their contribution for the welfare of the elderly and the vulnerable group. I think it is high time for government and civil society to work together to try to develop a Marshall Plan which could enhance a new framework in delivering welfare services to the needy population. Here, I have no ready answer to this issue, there is no ready-made solution.

Moreover, many countries like India delegate the implementation of many of the welfare programmes to NGOs because NGOs have the efficiency in providing the services at the grassroots level. But what I would advocate to the government is to have a comprehensive review of the effectiveness of the free services and the welfare benefits and how they are reaching the needy population. In light of this, a new strategy can be defined which can then give clear guidance for better improvement of the services offered. We must also look at the international experiences and from this, we can develop a very sound social public service.

 * We have had to date six governments and four different Prime Ministers at the helm of the country at different times since you quit politics in 1995. People may hold differing views about how the leaders have managed the affairs of the country, but at the end of the day do you think the people got the government they deserved?

Since I quit politics in 1995, we went through six governments and four different Prime Ministers at the helm of the country. In a democracy like Mauritius, the choice of the government and the leadership is in the hands of the voters. This has determined who leads the country at successive elections and each Prime Minister and government had their own programme for the development of the country. Along with the outcomes, there has been impact on the development of the country and the life of the people.

Nevertheless, no government can be perfect because of the complexity of the political framework that we have in Mauritius. I will not make a critical analysis of what happened from 1995 till now at the level of the different governments. We have seen their successes and the failures when at the helm of the country, and it is important to draw lessons from those, especially from the mistakes committed. What is important for all governments, once they are in power, is they should realize that they have to fulfil this noble mission with a deep sense of service to the nation and not to pursue their own interests.

I wish to recall a statement from Pope Francis – “The Covid-19, through the magnitude of the health crisis it generates and its unprecedented character, disrupts the functioning of our modern societies and our collective organization.

I therefore invite you to reflect and meditate deeply on the following quote:

“Let us pray today for men and women who have a political vocation. Politics is a high form of charity. Let us pray that the political parties may together seek the good of the country and not the good of their own parties during the present crisis.”

Unfortunately, we have noted since 1995 the increasing influence of money politics during elections and this in many cases has violated the rules of democracy and influenced the results.

 * Earlier this year, we saw you coming out openly to condemn the authorities’ handling of the case of late Soopramanien Kistnen, who died in mysterious circumstances, and attacking in the same breath the Prime Minister in very strong terms. Did you then think we had touched the bottom?

The mysterious circumstances surrounding his death had shocked the whole nation, and I could never believe that this will happen one day in Mauritius. I came out and condemned this act strongly for a number of reasons, but I will mention two:

  1. Late Kistnen was a member of the MSM, an active agent who fought hard for the elections of the Prime Ministers. After the alleged killing of late Soopramanien, the way the whole case was handled by the police and the authorities first declaring that it was a suicide and then confirmed that it was a crime, was yet another disturbing situation. Being a founder member of MSM, I took a position as it pains me to see where the party has fallen. Neither attention nor support were given to the Kistnen family after his death in this tough time. Instead they were unfairly attacked, making their lives more difficult. I could not stay insensitive to that situation.
  2. The second reason is more fundamental. The way the institutions, apart from the judiciary, have treated that case was also very disappointing. I think it is our duty to stand up and fight whenever there is injustice; we cannot and should not remain quiet. This has been my stand on many occasions whenever I felt there was an injustice and I would also like to remind that my strong condemnation was inspired by what Albert Einstein said, ‘If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity’…

I am also guided by the sayings of Desmond Tutu which I would like to quote, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.

* We now learn that the DPP has taken the decision to reopen the judicial inquiry in this case, on account of allegedly the failure of CCID to submit a complete report on the murder of the former MSM activist. How do you react to that?

I must say that we are fortunate in Mauritius to have a judiciary which has lived up to the expectations of the nation and ensures that justice will prevail. We know the circumstances in which the case went to the court and what was the outcome of the case of the private consecution lodged by the lawyers of Mrs Kistnen. Following the findings of the magistrate, the DPP has taken the decision to reopen the judicial enquiry. In the interest of justice, I think this is a very commendable move and it is to his honour that the DPP ensures the rule of law and the constitutional rights of every individual in Mauritius.

Fortunately, the attempt to reduce the independence of the DPP’s office by this government through the Prosecution Commission Bill in 2016 failed. The Prosecution Commission Bill did not go through in Parliament, otherwise the independence of the DPP’s office would have been severely undermined.

I have a special thought for Mrs Simla Kistnen because she has suffered tremendously not only for losing her husband in such an atrocious manner but also for her son who lost his father during the year he was sitting for his exams. I pray and hope like Mrs Kistnen who keeps on saying that God will render justice to the case of late Soopramanien Kistnen.

* What are your views on the political evolution in the next few years?

After the general election in 2019 in Mauritius, there was much concern about democracy and how the elections were conducted with the results being challenged. This has created a situation of mistrust in the government and the country was divided. What followed was a series of scandals, and acts of corruption which affected Mauritius’ credibility at international level. Let’s not forget the recent headline of Mauritius being placed on the EU blacklist, a news that was well published in the international media.

At the same time, at the political level, we have seen how the opposition instead of forming a united front against the government were divided. It is difficult to predict what will happen because many things can happen. It will also depend on how political parties will present their campaigns when election is due. I feel sad that our country has reached such a situation which is a matter of great concern for its future.

* Published in print edition on 27 July 2021

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