By Ramesh Beeharry
The population has voted, and the verdict has fallen. The Alliance Morisien (AM) led by PM Jugnauth has won the general election that was held on 7-Nov-2019 with a comfortable majority. He received 38 seats against the Alliance Nationale’s (AN) 14, the MMM’s 8, and the Rodrigues OPR’s 2.
In passing, it did not go unnoticed that, whilst the leaders of the of AM and MMM have both regained their seats, the leader of AN got trounced for the second time. With two humiliating defeats behind him, many people think that — whatever the advice coming from his think tank — the aging 72-year old NCR should seriously consider leaving the reins to a younger person. The view of most thinking people in the land is that the Labour Party is just too important to democracy in Mauritius to be left to crumble like its headquarters in Port Louis. From the ashes, the Phoenix will, must rise!
In a flourishing democracy, the opposition is not there only to oppose; it can help Government with cogent policy suggestions. Apart from the occasional rudeness to the Speaker, they did not leave much to remember them by. Fatally the oldest party also deduced that Arvin Boolell winning the mid-term by-election in constituency-14 was a sure signal of its revival. Somebody should perhaps have reminded it that Rome was not built in a day; nor was it built with one single brick!
The Lepep achievements are many and there is something for everyone. Right across the land today, there are thousands of baby-boomers (BB) like me who lived through what my brother-in-law calls the andhera din. It used to cost a minimum Rs10 pm to attend the local secondary school, but that was a fortune too far for most labouring families. The BBs would no doubt be reminiscing about their broken dreams due to grinding poverty and wondering at the miracle that has swept over the land in the space of just 5-years.
For their grandchildren: Education. When SSR introduced free secondary education in 1977, the doubters and beguilers had a field day criticizing it. Among the criticism was the old chestnut… too expensive! But as some great man has wisely said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Have you ever wondered where our tourist industry, or even our basic manufactures, would be without a mass of secondary school educated young?
But time has come to move on to the next challenge(s). Today every parent in the land knows that the HSC, though valuable as a stepping stone, is no longer sufficient to enter the world of work. So far, only those parents who are lucky enough to afford (some barely) the monthly instalments, borrow from the banks to finance further studies for their children. For those who cannot — and there are many in this category — the dwindling factory doors/maneve mason job beckons.
I am sure many of you have met overseas investors ruing the fact that they just cannot find the critical mass of graduates/Masters/PhDs/PhD+ to launch their ICT business here. So, once again Government has had to step into the breach. And once again, barring the doubters and the beguilers, PKJ’s announcement in Jan-2019 that tertiary education will henceforth be free for all our children was met with jubilation. And, in years to come when the benefits begin to accrue, no one will have the courage of their fickle convictions to admit to having been wrong. Never mind degree courses, my generation would have given their right arms to receive free secondary education!
For their children: a living wage. In the past, every Finance Minister has just shed crocodile tears over the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Yet they have all stopped short of taking the smallest step to reduce the widening chasm. On the contrary, some thoughtless actions must have helped to exacerbate it. You certainly cannot reduce income gaps by cutting the Corporate Tax by half for the rich and charging the same uniform tax rate of 15% to people on Rs 300k and the Rs 1m+ earner.
According to the Household Budget Survey 2017, the Relative Poverty Line (RPL) in Mauritius was +Rs 7500. According to the same survey, there were 130,500 living below the RPL. Yes sir, 10% of the population was officially living in poverty in 2017! Something had to be done, and quickly.
The Lepep has demonstrated — provided that there is the political will — much can be achieved. The introduction in 2018 of the Minimum National Wage (Rs 9000) plus the Negative Income Tax (Rs 1000) did not come too soon. Now every working person is on a living wage of at least Rs 10,000.
For them: a decent pension. Whenever the word poverty is mentioned, most people immediately think of working people toiling all week for a measly pay. Whilst this is true, they forget one category of people who number about 240,000. These are the old-age pensioners, sir! Before Dec-2014 — save for those with a works pension — they were all living below the RPL in poverty. In the space of just 5-years, Government has increased the old-age pension from Rs 3500 to Rs 9000 (Dec’14-Dec’19). That’s a massive increase of 257% — an average 50% pa!
As a result of these increases in income and OAPs, no working or retired person in the land will be living in poverty any more. That is an awesome achievement in the space of just one single mandate of 5-years!
For the country: Metro Express. With climate change and dwindling fossil fuel, the world cannot afford to carry on business as usual. Limiting the use of fossil fuel and going for renewable energy is the new environmental paradigm of our times. SIDS like Mauritius being the most vulnerable must act even more swiftly if we are to avoid the deluge that is coming from rising sea levels.
Therefore, the nascent Metro Express along the Curepipe/Port-Louis corridor could not have come too soon. Every true patriot knows that this is the right way forward. The sadly departed Raj Roy used to often talk about a railway system for the whole of Mauritius running on clean energy, with maps and even costing to hand. It is my firm belief that his dream is on the way to being realised. Limited resources may mean that it will take a wee bit longer for it to come, but come it must.
The icing on the cake: Chagos. Ah, Chagos, Chagos! This is the cherry sitting atop the cake of the Lepep achievements. For near on half a century our various PMs have stood at yearly UNGA thumping their chest and repeating ad nauseum “rane nou nou Diego!” Every time their calls falling on deaf years.
For it is not easy for tiny islands like Mauritius to stand up to the mighty British and the USA. But head held high, SAJ — the last of the Mohicans — valiantly took our case to the ICJ which ruled in our favour with a majority of 13/1. The British may wriggle as much as they like, but must ultimately answer to the UNGA where the whole project got kickstarted by intrepid SAJ.
So reparation must come. In an earlier piece (MT 05-Oct-2018), I had written about The Tuhoe tribe of NZ — that paragon country of fair play. It took 118-years of bitter fighting before the government conceded defeat in 2014. As a consequence the Tuhoe received an apology from the British Crown, a substantial cash compensation and the return of their land. I have faith in modern diplomacy; it will not take us 118-years to get the Chagos back under our control.
Wither next. Even opponents agree that Lepep has delivered with Capital D in the last 5-years. But people’s memories are short and, so having heightened their expectations, the Government will now have to think fast about keeping the momentum going for the next five. Policy is not always about pleasing everyone at all times. It is, however, about pleasing most of the people at some of the times. Far be it for an old minnow like me to give lessons to the wise in Parliament, but I feel it my duty to state (to be taken or left) a couple of ideas I hold dear.
NI Contributions. First, having dished out the goodies, it is time to do the sums and think about funding them on a long term basis and possibly going the Greek road. Here I am not inventing the wheel but, having lived in the UK for many years, will just suggest what has sustained the Welfare System there since the end of WW2. Everyone over the age of 18 is coerced into contributing to the National Insurance Scheme, failing which they do not receive a State Pension upon retirement. The wise would do well to reflect on this tried and tested scheme.
Property rates. Second, at the moment only house owners in towns are made to pay a household rate. Whereas house owners in the rural area — even the super rich IRS/ERS owners — are exempt. This is patently unfair. Much funding can be raised by making all owners pay without making anyone feel hard done by.
Health. Third, some years back the MSM manifesto had mooted the idea of a Family Doctor system. I wish that the new Government would think hard about reviving this idea because of all the benefits that would accrue from it. I am perhaps one of the lucky minority who do not have to attend hospital for non-emergency treatment. But as soon as I walk into his consultation room, Dr Veerassamy gets to the nitty-gritty immediately, because he has all he needs to know in my personal file. No wasting time about past medical history, what daily medication, testing for allergies, or what medication suits me best, etc. Thus in no time at all, I am out of the surgery on my way to the chemist with an appropriate prescription in my hand.
Lacking choice, the majority of the population have to go to the overcrowded A&E department for everything from a persistent cough to a broken limb, putting tremendous strain on limited (very limited since there has been no substantial increase in MoH budget in a decade) hospital resources. At rush hour, it is sheer bedlam! A family doctor would solve the overcrowding problem, create jobs for young unemployed doctors, deliver a much more efficient service, improve the health and productivity of the population. As for funding, I have covered this amply in an earlier piece (MT 16-Apr-2018). A bon entendeur, salut!
* Published in print edition on 22 November 2019