By TP Saran
As we emerged from the miserable years of the pre- and peri-independence period, we looked forward to the promise of a future where the benefits of development would be shared and distributed to all equitably, where access to education, health, housing would be available without the many hurdles that had bedevilled us in the past. Until a couple of decades ago, especially post what came to be known as our second industrial phase in the 1980s, it seemed that this promise was going to be fulfilled.
We have no doubt made significant leaps towards bettering our lives, with state-driven policies that were designed to this end. Early on, we achieved universal health coverage free at the point of service, obtained free public education up to tertiary level, established a universal pension scheme that included several social benefits targeted at specific groups, set up governance structures for recruitment in the public service, allowed trade union activity for the promotion of employee interest and welfare in both the public and private sectors – and many more of such kinds of measures including on the housing, banking and financial fronts.
Sadly, however, a number of difficulties and challenges that ought to have been smoothed out continue to trail us and to impact lives negatively, besides the persistence of some mindsets and practices which should have evolved for the better.
A major one that continues to plague us is the injustice to small planters that awaits a permanent resolution. At its very inception, this paper was very vocal on this issue, and it may be recalled that it was following an editorial titled ‘The Fraud Continues’ that the colonial authorities were forced to set up the Balogh Commission on the sugar industry. The report that followed made a number of recommendations, many of which were implemented and brought some improvement in the lots of the small planter community.
However, many issues pertaining to them still remain to be thrashed out and determined once and for all. As the sugar industry has morphed into the cane industry, the small planters have been left behind, not being made to participate as valued partners in the expansion of the new sectors that derive from sugarcane production which they are still engaged in. On the contrary, everything seems to conspire to drive them away from this activity. They have been betrayed despite the many bodies putatively set up to protect them.
Today the finger is being pointed, rightly or wrongly, at the Sugar Industry Fund Board, and it has been the subject of a PNQ by the Leader of the Opposition Xavier-Luc Duval last Tuesday. The miseries and shortfalls in income of the small planters have been the subject of articles in this paper by former minister of agriculture Arvin Boolell, and by former ICT Minister Pradeep Jeeha, who resigned from the MMM earlier this year. Elsewhere in today’s issue he takes up in detail the mismanagement that has taken place at the level of different governmental institutions relating to the sugar sector, echoing the Leader of Opposition’s stand to the effect that the small planters have, once again, been short-shrifted.
We are therefore called to ask: why have successive governments in recent times gone soft on taking the proactive decisions that are required to mete out justice once and for all to this group of people? After all, they are a continuation in the line of those who were the backbone of the monocrop economy in its heyday, and which allowed the oligarchy to thrive whereas they lagged behind because of the asymmetrical sharing of the earnings. For how long more is this asymmetry going to last? They need an answer, and fast. Will the authorities take up their cause or not? The questions are posed.
Related to this matter of equitable sharing are the wage and compensation issues, which come to the fore afresh as the unions are poised to negotiate shortly. The latest Household Budget Survey carried out by Statistics Mauritius shows that there has been a marginal improvement in inequality (income figures) and in poverty level (based on the Gini coefficient) between 2012 and 2017. There is therefore still room for much improvement. In this, an adequate compensation in wage to match inflation is one factor, and the raise hoped for by the unions range from Rs500 to Rs 750 across the board.
As usual, there will be hard bargaining, and no doubt the issue of minimum wage will also be brought up by the employers – to wit that it has already compensated to some extent. But compensation and minimum wage should be considered as separate issues. For one, the hue and cry about businesses closing down when the minimum wage was introduced has proved to be a spurious one, for in fact there has been no closures to write home about. So let’s hope that more generosity will prevail during the negotiations for compensation, and less acrimony and hair-pulling.
On another note, we have to recognize that we have for too long focused on quantitative development – more, productivity, more growth – and not paid enough attention to quality of life for all. While level of income may not be the most important element in this aspect, it still is a big factor. And we come back to our point that equitable sharing is the key. Billions of rupees are circulating in the country; we are talking of smart cities and all kinds of projects, and yet these sums seem to be trapped in only some pockets. It is time to go for a paradigm shift in our developmental thrust, again so that all stand to gain in equal measure. In any country, as the pundits know and tell us, an expanding middle class is a sign of prosperity. Here, despite all the mega-projects and promises, the middle class is contracting. This is surely a clear indication that there is something amiss with our development, a zero-sum game that is working out, to our overall detriment.
We ought to redirect and rethink, be clear about where we are headed. Quality first or quantity always? – this is the stark choice that we have to make – and urgently, so that we can course correct before it is too late.
* Published in print edition on 23 November 2018