Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago
We have had the opportunity to read the speech of Mr Hinchey, the Acting Colonial Secretary, delivered in the Legislative Council on the 12th instant. Mr Hinchey was moving a motion to back the programme as outlined in the address of His Excellency the Officer Administering the Government on the 26th ultimo. We must confess that it is somewhat confusing. Mr Hinchey has dealt with quite a variety of topics, and as usual he has followed them with his own comments. Judging from what he told the Council, we are led to believe that apart from some few subjects on which he is rather pessimistic, the island is heading towards an era of unusual prosperity. We submit that things are not so rosy as he wants us to believe. There are quite a lot of factors which must be put into their right perspectives if we are to infer whether there is enough security for one and all in the island or whether we are gradually moving away from our moorings.
We shall take some few items out of the speech of Mr Hinchey and we shall work out the figures.
Income per Head
We are to begin with income per head of the population. Mr Hinchey has taken the gross income of the colony and has divided it by the total population of the island and he has thus got Rs 1044 as income per head of the population. This procedure, we submit, is a very misleading way of assessing the income of the colony per head of the population. Perhaps Mr Hinchey would have been right if he could have claimed that Rs 1044 represent the apparent income of the population per capita. We suggest that there should be no two ways of approach to this question. Either every person inhabiting this country has made up individually the Rs 1044 or some few have contributed to swell up the figures. There can be no middle way.
Mr Hinchey knows better than many of us that there is a pronounced disparity of income in this island. A fraction of the population is rather a liability to this country than an asset. It constitutes, to put it mildly, some sort of deadweight to this country not because it is not willing to contribute its quota to build up the economic prosperity of this country but because it is an inevitable victim of the vicious capitalist system. It is in fact jobless. Now in order to work out the figures per capita we have to discard that particular class of people. As regards the rest of the population, we are publishing hereunder the scales of their income and the readers will see for themselves what a wide gap there is between the income of different groups and what group in fact earns the biggest income. This undoubtedly will prove why, at the peak of our prosperity, starvation and unemployment are rampant. In 1955 out of an estimated 325,000 adult population only 4,394 persons paid income tax in the following proportions:
360 individuals earned Rs 10,001 to Rs 15,000.
314… Rs 15,001 to Rs 25,000.
263… Rs 25,001 to Rs 50,000.
104… Rs 50,001 to Rs 100,000.
45… Rs 100,001 to Rs 250,000.
3… Rs 250,001 to Rs 500,000.
To these earnings must be added various reliefs and allowances allowed by the Income Tax Dept. which in fact amount to an average Rs 6,500 per individual. Besides this, there are 106 companies whose earnings ranged between Rs 5,001 to over Rs 1,000,000 respectively. All this is a clear indication that most of the income of the country is in the hands of some few people. The majority of the population is still in the grip of chronic poverty. Mauritius is the land of contrast par excellence. While some people are rolling in riches, others are practically penniless.
No doubt a foreigner visiting our country will be highly impressed by our fat bank balance, and he will be astounded to hear that by the end of December 1956 the balances due to our banks from banks abroad were Rs 77,439,000. This huge sum of money is being lent outside the country. That is one of the main reasons why our credit has gone down and in consequence the rate of interest on loans has gone up. The rate of interest prevailing in the island on mortgages keeps increasing; the average rate in 1954 was 8.23% while in 1955 it went up to 8.38%.
Mr Hinchey, in another part of his speech, has brought our attention to the unemployment problem. By himself he is quite unable to prescribe any tangible remedy. He believes that an expert from U.K. will help to enlighten us. On this question, we do agree with him but rather reluctantly. Mr Hinchey, who is well acquainted with this country, can give us at least a start.
There are some 9,086 acres of Crown Lands and Pas Geometriques which have been rented to some individuals for an average annual rent of Rs 17.50 per acre. The lease may now be extended to 65 years. Is it a fair policy to increase the duration of the lease up to 65 years when very recently it covered a period of only 30 years?
Some of these privileged lessees sublet their lands for the fantastic sum of Rs 300 to 400 per year. The fact that Government is not yet prepared to introduce a land legislation makes the position more dangerous. Land rent has become to some people a most coveted business. Of course, all these Crown lands cannot be put under sugarcane plantation, but there is no doubt that some good use can be made of them. Maize and onions and other vegetables can be economically grown on them. Instead of allowing some people to construct beautiful bungalows and grow nice filao trees all round and allowing acres and acres of good land to lie fallow, Government could have partitioned some of the land among those who are workless and thus help to solve the unemployment problem. There are also thousands of acres of Crown lands which are rented to some capitalists for a nominal price for game keeping.
We think, in all decency, that Mr Hinchey would have done better to give top priority to the question of land distribution rather than lulling us with the hope of a big promising future.
About the question of unemployment, we have been promised some experts from the U.K. God knows what remedy they will prescribe! Most probably they will suggest emigration. But then the question arises. “Where are we to move to?”
South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada. Will not our skin betray us?
Increase of Salaries
Another item which figures much in Mr Hinchey’s speech is the proposed increase of technical and professional staff. We do not fully agree with Mr Hinchey’s suggestion that in order to attract qualified persons for such jobs, we need increase their salaries or else there won’t be any temptation for fresh talents to flow in. We think that though the increase of salaries is a bit higher in other parts of the Commonwealth, the cost of living there is higher too. Since 1948 there have been about eleven adjustments in the salaries of Civil Servants. We believe that the ceiling must be fixed once for all. The persons recruited should be those who can contribute to the material prosperity of this country. Unfortunately it happens so, that sometime qualifications are put aside and the persons recruited are the very essence of mediocrity.
Now let us see what treatment is meted out by the Government to its underdogs. At the end of June 1954, 2384 skilled labourers employed by the Public Works Department (P.W.D.) were drawing wages ranging from Rs 3.20 to Rs 3.92 per day; 1169 unskilled labourers from Rs 2.80 to Rs 2.96; 920 artisans from Rs 3.60 to Rs 7.30 per day. These workers are mostly married people and most of them have to pay rent. Can our Government decently expect them to live on such wages? We would have liked Mr Hinchey to tell us whether in any civilized country a man can maintain himself and his family on Rs 2.80 per day? Even if the workers have got, as snobs will put it, no standard of living they are bound at least to feed their stomach and provide for their family. Can we expect Mr Hinchey to deal with the wages of these unfortunate victims of our society with the same zeal which he has displayed in connection with the wages of high officials?
Now on what basis the wages of labourers are computed? It is all based on the statistics compiled by the Labour Department in the year of Our Lord 1939. According to this medieval and inhuman way of computation the labourer’s wages are made up of what extra money he and his family can get in growing vegetables, rearing goats, cows and poultry plus what he earns in sweating a whole day. The wife too has got to bring in her contribution. In the final analysis, all the earnings described above go to make up his wages. And what wages!! — the paltry sum of Rs 2.82 to Rs 3.33 at utmost.
The Way Out
The only hope so far for the island is the sugar industry. We have put almost all our marginal land under sugarcane plantation. The market for the time being is alright, but there is bound to be a slump some day. We must think right now what we must do if we are to survive in the long run. Government is doing its utmost to put some of our land under tea plantation. On this question too, opinions are divided. Some believe that neither our soil nor our climate is congenial for the growth of good variety tea, and that India and Ceylon which have got both the soil and the climate and a century of experience behind them will easily oust us. Others believe that our tea can easily find a market abroad. We need not be so pessimistic about the destiny of our tea industry. We should rather find ways and means to keep up a market for our tea abroad. It is, after all, our main secondary industry. Government has got to see whether other resources of the country can be tapped. Of course this is a very delicate question and it needs careful thinking.
We are actually importing goats, cattle and dry milk on a rather big scale from foreign countries. Is there no possibility for us to provide part of them locally? It is up to our Government to think about all this. We submit it all requires systematic planning.
We must not allow ourselves to be carried away by undue optimism because we are having a temporary boom.
4th Year – No 137
Friday 22nd March 1957
* Published in print edition on 7 February 2020