Building the Mauritius We Want

This is not the time for reckless adventurism. There is only one way forward

By Mrinal Roy

The country faces daunting socio-economic challenges in the wake of the dire fallouts of the Covid-19 pandemic in a context of growing public indebtedness, strapped public finances and worsening economic fundamentals. This grim situation has been compounded by appalling governance, questionable and costly misuse of public funds as well as a patent absence of accountability and transparency.

“The Covid-19 pandemic require exceptional price control and currency stabilizing measures to protect consumers. Instead of alleviating the cost of groceries of households, the government’s Rs 500 million support measure basically subsidizes the profits of retailers and supermarkets. The economic policies of the government cannot be driven by a fixation with VAT earnings to shore strapped government revenue at the expense of consumers…”

Thus, a galling opacity shrouds costly projects such as the Rs 19 billion Safe City project whose deliverable benefits remain elusive or the Rs 5 billion Cote d’or Multi-Sports Complex, the allocation of tens of billions of Rupees of Mauritius Investment Corporation Ltd (MIC) funds blithely drawn from the country’s foreign exchange reserves to bail out distressed conglomerates and other companies, emergency procurement tenders and infrastructure projects generally, etc. This is in the teeth of the government glib rhetoric about accountability, transparency and good governance.

Parochial agendas

What on earth is the rationale of extending the metro line to Ebene and the Reduit campus from Rose Hill entailing the construction of a costly bridge instead of building a branch line from St Jean in relatively open ground to Ebene and Reduit? Have all options been carefully gauged to determine the least costly and disruptive option? It is also imperative to judiciously determine the choice of any further extension of the metro network on the basis of a rigorous and transparent cost-benefit exercise instead of rashly embarking on costly ad hoc extensions driven by narrow parochial agendas at public expense.

Covid-19 has also exposed the fundamental weaknesses of an economic model highly dependent on the tourism industry and real estate activities and projects whose viability depends on the sale of high-end properties to foreigners and unrestricted air travel. With a whopping banking debt of some Rs 55 billion and billions of Rupees obtained from the MIC, the hospitality sector remains extremely vulnerable especially as only some 179,000 passengers travelled to Mauritius in the last quarter of 2021 after our borders were opened on 1 October 2021.

This raises the question of the number of passengers who actually stayed in hotels as a certain proportion of tourists opt to stay in private accommodation. The economic actors of the sector and government are therefore desperate for the tourism and hospitality sector to pick up momentum as quickly as possible. This will require a well-honed promotional and marketing strategy which offers a safe, competitive, enriching and unique holiday experience to tourists in the country.

In a bid to boost the beleaguered travel industry, various countries are lifting all restrictions on international travel. England and Scotland announced this week that people arriving from abroad as from 11 February will no longer have to take Covid tests if they are fully vaccinated. Travel to France is now permissible to fully-vaccinated British travellers. This is expected to encourage skiing trips and visits to Disneyland Paris in the coming weeks and during February half-term as around 17 million UK citizens visit France in a normal year.

Spending largesse

What makes matters worse is that instead of promoting productive economic activities, the government continues to grant freebies the country can ill afford (presumably to obtain political mileage) to all and sundry from public funds. Despite massive investments from the budget allocation for a National Flood Management Programme of Rs 11.7 billion for the construction and upgrading of some 1500 drain projects across the island over the next three years to prevent flooding in flood prone areas and localities, flooding in these areas after each heavy rainfall remains unabated. The recent torrential rains have again showcased the distress caused to people in diverse localities through recurrent flooding.

Consumer outcry

The government also seems blind to the distress and inability of more than 47% of employees earning up to Rs 15,000 per month to meet their essential existential needs in a context where the prices of consumer goods fuelled by the unchecked depreciation of the Rupee are rising almost every week. Consumers are legitimately up in arms at the inability of government to stem such greedy profiteering.

The unprecedented circumstances caused by the Covid-19 pandemic require exceptional price control and currency stabilizing measures to protect consumers. Instead of alleviating the cost of groceries of households, the government’s Rs 500 million support measure basically subsidizes the profits of retailers and supermarkets. The economic policies of the government cannot be driven by a fixation with VAT earnings to shore strapped government revenue at the expense of consumers.

In the larger world context, the IMF has cut its world economic growth forecast to 4.4% for 2022, down from an estimate of 4.9% in October, as the Covid-19 pandemic enters its third year, based on weaker prospects for the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies. This will affect economic recovery prospects.

Clamour for a new political culture

At a time when the country needs a paradigm shift in governance and a sea change in political culture and government policy framework, the main opposition parties are blithely hammering out a deal on the modalities of a hotchpotch political alliance to challenge the incumbent government with essentially the same leaders and protagonists who have been repeatedly rejected by the electorate at the last two elections. As before, the negotiations are based on the principle that nothing is agreed until the full shopping list of each party’s demands is agreed. This disconcerting situation begs so many burning questions.

Ideals instead of deals

Is it not blatantly clear to the political class and everyone that what the people clamour for is a fundamentally changed political culture based on ideals, principles and an ethos distanced from power-sharing deals which provoked the 2014 electoral debacle? Do the leaders of the Labour Party-led coalition and the MMM, which registered one of their worst electoral defeats in 2019 with 14 and 8 elected MPs only, seriously think that they represent a credible alternative which can rally the multitude to their cause? The stakes are high. Defeat is not an option. The MMM must realize that dissent within its ranks has dented and eroded its electoral base.

This is not therefore the time to cut deals behind the back of the people but to champion ideals. The political class must realize that the people want a new dawn which reboots politics with the seminal ideals, principles and ethos the independence of the country was fought on. Makeshift arrangements on interim Prime Ministers or widely decried mentors to soothe the hurt egos of defeated leaders are anathema to the people.

The people also want an end to political interference and high-handedness as well as nepotism, cronyism and the decried policy of nominating the party faithful to cushy key governments posts at the head of state institutions and state-owned companies. They want meritocracy and competence to prevail at all echelons of state institutions, companies and the government Establishment.

The people want talented and competent new leaders with a track record of achievements and a new political class which commits to principles of meritocracy at all levels, transparency and accountability, good governance and a commitment to promote the independence and efficiency of state institutions and the government Establishment as well as the highest standards of propriety in the management of the affairs of the State.

The people want to reinstate a vibrant democracy where the interests of people and the continuous improvement of their welfare remain at the centre of government actions. They want an independent and fair Speaker and the allegiance of elected MPs to first and foremost promote the interests of the people and to uphold public interest at all times.

New dawn

People therefore want a new start with an innovative blueprint for the future which recast the economic model, brings about important reforms, overhaul all levels of the education system on the best benchmarks prevailing in the countries with the best education systems in the world and significantly improve the prospects and standard of living of the young. They want government to robustly address the threats of climate change, end coal use and urgently boost green and renewable energy production.

Mauritius is therefore at a key crossroads. If we want to build the Mauritius we want, the pathway to obtain the endorsement of the people and success at the polls is well defined. Political parties, the political class and all those who adhere to the ideals and values of a new dawn for people and country must adapt accordingly or perish. This is not the time for reckless adventurism. There is only one way forward.

* Published in print edition on 28 January 2022

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