“Will we really have a new normal around effective social justice, inclusion and equity?”

Interview: Prof Sheila Bunwaree

‘If we continue to use our lands for IRS and RES or huge golf courses, we are doomed ecologically’

‘with one of the MIC’s criteria being to extend assistance to companies with at least Rs 100 million, we cannot avoid asking in whose interests is this government working’

Prof Sheila Bunwaree, sociologist, academician and political observer takes a broad sweep at the country’s predicament in light of the budgetary measures announced yesterday. Although she finds some pluses, she is sceptical about implementation because several schemes that were announced in previous budgets have never materialised and yet are touted anew, e.g. Land Bank, Blue economy, promotion of smart agriculture, etc. There are major concerns about environmental sustainability which proposals in the budget go against, and a most pressing worry, job creation, finds no mention at all.

Mauritius Times: Most trade unionists are usually never satisfied with budgetary measures year in year out. That’s unlike the business and private sector institutions which rarely find fault with a budget speech. What does this tell about the level of debate and the quality of leadership at all levels and in different sectors in the country? Have we made some progress?

Prof Sheila Bunwaree: Saying that trade unions are never satisfied with budgetary measures is somewhat exaggerated and unfair especially when we think of the critical role that they play in ensuring that workers’ rights, particularly employment and decent working conditions are protected. I am aware that some people have referred to trade unions as having a ‘mentality of entitlements’ but such a comment especially in the current Covid context where jobs are threatened and gains made can get easily eroded, is rather unbecoming.

We should be happy that there exist some trade unions which battle to ensure that fiscal policy is not tilted in favour of a frequently exploitative capitalist class to the further detriment of the working class. It is the responsibility of each and every one of us who believe in a more just society to ensure that the relationship between capital and labour is a fair and human one. There has been very little possibility of any meaningful engagement between the unions and the authorities lately and yet such dialogue is particularly necessary in these times of crisis.

This brings me to the second part of your question. Debates and quality of leadership are essential ingredients of a functioning democracy. But with workers’ rights being infringed upon and civic space shrinking, we see a veering towards an authoritarian state. What makes matters worse is when you see some people ‘sychophanting’ morning and night, allowing their intellect and conscience to go down the drain. Being subservient to their master and clapping at every decision taken, including the recent Covid Bill which as many trade unionists and civil society members have demonstrated is anti-worker, facilitating workers’ layoff rather than protecting them, goes to show that some of our parliamentarians have become adept at defending the indefensible.

If it was not for the hunger strike of the cleaners led by certain trade union groups, the national minimum wage may never have been introduced. But of course all those working under the thumb of the PM would claim that this is because of his ‘inspiring’ leadership. And we will hear these sycophants once more during the budgetary ‘debates’. For those of us searching for a Politics of Truth, Justice and Fairness, we can only despair!

*As a social scientist by training and now very much involved in the political field, did you get the feeling of ‘politics having trumped economics after listening to the almost two-hour long budget speech?

After having listened to the Finance Minister’s interventions on a few occasions during recent weeks, I quickly realised that he is not cut for the job. Nothing personal but running the finances of a country and preparing a budget especially in the context of this pandemic is a huge responsibility which demands reason, dexterity, compassion and above all vision.

The population has the legitimate expectation that the government would be mapping out a sustainable road to recovery but listening to this budget speech has been a real disappointment. Coming to your specific question, I would say that politics has intertwined with bad economics to trump social and environmental sustainability.

As the world grapples with the uncertainty associated with the multiple ripple effects of Covid-19 and not knowing whether we will be spared from a second wave, people want to be reassured particularly as regards the capacity to bring food to the table. The sudden loss of jobs, soaring prices, the psychological trauma of the lockdown and the distressing pictures of children crying when their shacks serving as shelter, are being dismantled because some ‘caring and humanistic’ politicians have decided that the law has to be respected no matter what during this confinement period calls one to reflect on what politics is all about.

When one hears a woman senior minister, in response to a request made by a few opposition members for poor children attending ZEP schools to be provided with a meal during the confinement period, saying that this is not possible because ‘…le projet de repas chaud n’a pas été conçu pour cela’, one cannot but feel frustrated at such a reaction.

 The citizenry and particularly the youth want to know whether they can aspire to a secure future – one which is green, one which is free of hunger, of illiteracy, of homelessness, one in which they can raise a family and feel happy. But instead of feeling reassured, they are left even more troubled. The 63% of the population who did not vote for this regime are intelligent – they can see through the political game – they are fed up of manipulative politicians – they want good sensible economics and human centred economic policy making.

The excesses of neoliberalism and the dehumanising facet of globalisation have become even more obvious as a result of this pandemic and have shown that development cannot be thought and planned in silos – it has to be integrated. I realise that it is not easy for policy makers who are driven by a neoliberal agenda and inclined to privilege big business and protect their own immediate interests, to pave the way for a transformative agenda where the human being and Mother Nature are truly centre stage. So it becomes easier for an interlocked politics and economics to trump social and environmental sustainability.

* Most of our economists have been saying that the country will go through difficult times in the months ahead with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the global economy. Governments must dramatically overhaul policies and invest in public health, economic stimulus and social safety nets to help countries recover faster. Do you see the measures proposed in Budget 2020-2021 sufficient to meet these challenges?

Economists across the globe, including ours too, agree that the world will go through very difficult times. A consideration of context-bound factors is however required when deciding on the formulation and implementation of policies. There is not a single economy which will come out of this crisis undamaged, but with collective effort, the right mix of policies, genuine solidarity, we can certainly bring our nation back on a sustainable path. But coming to the sectors that you mention:

Public health: The budget tells us that Rs 12 billion will go to the health sector with a new 5-year strategic plan 2020-24. Whether we will be able to meet the challenges linked to the health of our nation will depend largely on the details, direction and implementation of the plan, provided that we do not get a second wave.

The former Minister of Agriculture during the mandate 2014- 2019 came up with a strategic plan oriented towards sheltered farming, better utilisation of lands for agricultural purpose and reduction of food imports but very little of that has been implemented. Moreover, the Land Bank was also mentioned by the former minister of Agriculture and rehashed in this budget. Sorry for the digression to agriculture but just to tell you that Pravind Jugnauth’s government is very poor at implementation.

Mention has also been made of a cancer hospital, eye hospital and teaching hospital – all long overdue but certainly good measures, amongst some other new schemes. Are they sufficient? Certainly not because there is so much more that could be done to both prevent and cure diseases in Mauritius.

Economic stimulus: Honestly, one wonders what is being stimulated when there is not a single mention of how new jobs will be created. As it is, we already had an important pool of unemployed, particularly amongst women and youth. The Minister of Finance himself told us that unemployment will revolve around the 100,000 mark. These people will therefore be cashless. Simple economics tells you that stimulating the economy requires productive investment which can boost demand and allow consumption to grow. Many Nobel laureates in economics from Stiglitz to Duflo, commenting on the economics of Covid-19, tell us that money must be pumped in to expand demand and thus cause a multiplier effect in the economy.

 The SME sector, which plays a crucial role in most economies, could have been the propeller to new growth levels but we are all familiar with the Maubank saga. And what we see now is only some Rs 10 million per enterprise at a concession rate of some 0.5 per cent per annum, through the DBM. We all know that the latter is another disaster, joining the ranks of many other institutions, which have been filled with ‘petits copains et copines’, thus preventing it from playing its role effectively.

With Rs 158 billion at its disposal, the government could have certainly given a real boost to the SME sector but it has chosen otherwise. This is a sector where women and youth can thrive but not when you create a situation where they will be expected to meet very stringent administrative conditions like producing guarantees, sophisticated business plans, etc. Our youth and small entrepreneurs are very creative people but they would be very hesitant to take a loan at this juncture, even if the interest rate seems minimal to some. What is even more tragic is that the limited gains made on women’s economic empowerment will very quickly dissipate with serious implications on gender based violence.

Some people are making a lot of noise about some small measures such as the obligation for supermarkets to reserve some 10% of their shelf space for local products, as well as for government departments to consume at least some 30% of local products/services. It would be good to know what are the current percentages in both these cases. What mechanisms exist to ensure that there is democratisation of this space and not only one or two names which keep recurring.

Now if we turn to tourism which was already badly hit pre-Covid largely because of poor management of the sector, inability to alter the tourism product and diversify its market, and to crown it all our sinking national carrier – a central plank of the tourism industry. What do we hear? Mauritius will be sold as a Covid-free refuge. There is a total lack of imagination and creativity in rethinking the tourism product. Instead we hear of hotels converting their rooms into service apartments for sale to rich owners and facilitating high net worth tourists coming in via private jets. Not one word on eco and cultural tourism which have the potential of creating more jobs for our young people, attract more tourists and increase our foreign exchange earnings.

Another sector with a lot of potential to absorb our unemployed graduates is the financial services sector but we all know how this government has successfully managed to bring what was a vibrant sector to its near death. The financial services sector is now on the OECD blacklist but have we heard of any significant measure to redress the situation?

We can go on looking at sector by sector and we will then be in a better position to understand how this budget despite the generous gift from the central bank, constitutes a missed opportunity. Here was an opportunity to really engage in a paradigm shift and adopt an alternative model of development, where the ecology, economy and society articulate effectively with each other, but sadly none of this has happened.

Social safety nets: We must remember that the welfare state has been part and parcel of this country’s development trajectory since independence and has certainly helped many of our citizens to get out of the poverty trap. Maintaining existing social safety nets is of course very welcome but human dignity, genuine social protection are key to citizens empowerment. Pope Francis’s famous 3 Ts: TRAVAIL, TERRE, TOIT resonates with those of us searching for a truly inclusive development model. Can this budget help to achieve this? Let us hope so and only time will tell.

* But besides its minuses and misses, one cannot deny that the budget does contain some pluses, isn’it? What would you say are the pluses of the budget?

A few measures that on the surface can be seen as pluses include: The solidarity levy, the bad allowance rise for fishermen, the extension of the Rs5100 wage assistance for a certain period, the 12,000 housing units which will be built over three years and of course there are a few more. But it’s not worth going through the shopping list since they are all problematic when one starts unpacking them. Bragging about the gas cylinder’s price having fallen by Rs30 for example is deceitful. We all know that it is our own money financing this. Did the Mauritian consumer benefit from the recent large drop in the price of oil on the international market?

* This budget is coming just a few months after the Covid-19 outbreak and there are, besides the lessons, opportunities to draw from the pandemic. What are the opportunities that the government should not have missed in terms of genuine and public interest reforms?

A genuine public interest reform would have been to bring in mechanisms and appropriate legislations to cut down on waste in different sectors. Some countries have a ‘public malfeasance act’ or an ‘economic offenders bill’ to address malpractices and related problems. But here we persist with the culture of impunity and when people claim for a redress of the situation, we are told that there are enough legislations in this country. But we do need to put a stop to the depletion of public money.

Another opportunity that presents itself in these Covid times is to promote the green economy and the ecology but judging by the recent address that the PM gave to a large group of head boys and girls last march, on the occasion of 52nd Independence anniversary, it seems clear that this is a government which is bent on big infrastructural, glamorous and construction projects at the expense of our environment. True, this budget pumps in some Rs100 billion rupees under the heading ‘a greener economy’. But the question is how do we make it greener unless we stop cutting down trees, preserve and expand our forests, protect our prime agricultural lands as well as our biodiversity amongst other measures.

A number of recommendations were made at ‘Les Assises de l’environnment’- let us wait and see. Reference has been made in the budget to an air quality index and the necessity of preserving good quality air. But why don’t we immediately stop the many buses emitting thick dark fumes from moving on our roads? Is it that difficult?

* If the government does not come forward with wide-ranging drastic reforms in certain key sectors that are of critical importance to the country, like food security, land use, energy and environment, government spending, then we would be going back to the business as usual mode. Would that be sustainable?

You are absolutely right – sustainability is not within their mindsets. There seems to be no effort to move away from the business as usual mode – they prefer making similar mistakes to those made in the past and when you question them, they quickly point out that earlier regimes made similar or bigger mistakes; it is so pathetic to hear this ad nauseam.

The food security question is one which is crucial. I have alluded to it earlier. But food security can also be enhanced through the Ocean economy. Again, a number of projects were announced in 2014, come 2019 nothing significant achieved. Given what we have seen so far with multiple promises at different points in time during the PM’s first mandate, it is difficult to believe that we are heading in the right direction.

Government spending is another area that worries me. We are already heavily indebted and now that this regime has allowed for the removal of the debt ceiling through amendments made to the ‘management of the public debt act’ using Covid-19 as an excuse to justify their action. I fear for future generations.

Land use and energy are certainly key issues for sustainability. If we continue to use our lands for IRS and RES or huge golf courses, we are doomed ecologically and with no food security in view. It is perhaps premature to know what direction the land and environment questions will take from now onwards. We have seen a substantial amount of resources going to the Ministry of Environment, let us watch what happens. Will we really have a new normal around effective social justice, inclusion and equity?

* Do you also share the view expressed by the Leader of the Opposition that it is Business Mauritius that’s setting the agenda of the government and dictating economic policy?

Big business certainly has a huge influence on the government and to a large extent does dictate the latter’s economic policy agenda. We should not forget the recent episode of how the minister of finance dished out money to enterprises which were making profits and if it was not for the public outcry, perhaps these big firms would not have been asked to remedy.

And now when we look at the functions of the MIC with one of its criteria being to extend assistance to those companies with at least Rs 100 million, we cannot avoid asking in whose interests is this government working. Using the Covid crisis to justify this collusive and incestuous relationship between big business and government at the expense of those struggling for their livelihoods is unacceptable. I here think particularly of the informal sector workers and the self-employed.

* Whilst there are big challenges facing the country, we find government amending labour laws that will facilitate redundancy, creating the MIC with the billions from the BOM and shielded from Parliament’s scrutiny, pulling down squatters shacks rightly or wrongly… Can you understand why government has taken these actions?

It’s a real shame for a government which has made so many promises since 2014 to come up with anti-worker amendments to the labour laws, to steep further into opacity and to refuse being accountable. I personally never saw anything wrong in the Central Bank supporting the government and perhaps playing its role of lender of last resort in these very challenging circumstances. But Covid-19 should be no excuse for the consolidation of opacity.

No civilised and truly democratic country would allow for big money and reserves to be siphoned off from their central banks in the manner that it has been here without appropriate governance structures and any form of scrutiny whatsoever. Can I understand why government has taken these particular actions? I am not sure that I can.

The ease with which they trample on citizens’ rights or remain indifferent to the plight of the downtrodden speak volumes about their style of governance. The misery and suffering inflicted on our stranded citizens in different parts of the world during these last few months is yet another example highlighting the discrepancy that exists between their rhetoric of a caring government and their capacity to empathise. The heart-wrenching images of the squatters speaks volumes about the heartlessness and hypocrisy of some!

* Published in print edition on 5 June 2020

An Appeal

Dear Reader

65 years ago Mauritius Times was founded with a resolve to fight for justice and fairness and the advancement of the public good. It has never deviated from this principle no matter how daunting the challenges and how costly the price it has had to pay at different times of our history.

With print journalism struggling to keep afloat due to falling advertising revenues and the wide availability of free sources of information, it is crucially important for the Mauritius Times to survive and prosper. We can only continue doing it with the support of our readers.

The best way you can support our efforts is to take a subscription or by making a recurring donation through a Standing Order to our non-profit Foundation.
Thank you.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *