It is time the voices of citizens, especially those of the younger and upcoming generations, are heard about what kind of physical and social environment they would want to live in
By Sada Reddi
Hardly a week goes by without grim news about a new scandal, some crime having been committed, a person gone missing, or a corpse found lying by the roadside or abandoned in the bushes. Not to mention other crimes and criminal acts perpetrated by our fellow countrymen. These happenings have shocked many and left them wondering about what is going wrong in our society and made our lives even more stressful.
Creating Living and Resilient Communities. Pic – Archello
Those who have probed these social problems may come up with different answers, but in our view it also has something to do with the hard times we are living in – resulting from the poor governance, the relentless decline in the standard of living, the precarious situation of not only low-income groups, but also the middle classes, growing unemployment, etc. No wonder relative poverty has morphed into absolute poverty. The State has its own assessment of these problems and how they could be resolved, but it is important that our citizens begin to think in terms of reinventing or regenerating our neighbourhood communities and building resilience to tackle such problems.
Other signs of the growing disaffection with our present-day society has been the search for alternative ways of living to fight against, and cope with stressful lives and to seek new approaches to life and sustainable ways of living. We come across many young people and couples who cannot find time to devote to their children or to prepare a home meal and have to queue up in supermarkets for evening meals. Fast food takes a toll on their health and that of their children.
The pressure of work coupled with traffic problems are responsible for many of these problems, but very often the insatiable need to make more money and to fulfill unlimited material wants is at the root of their difficult situation. They cannot be blamed for they have been brought up in a consumer society where conspicuous consumption has become an end in itself. But we are equipped with agency with powers to control our thoughts and behaviour; we could take a step back and rethink our life goals.
Not surprisingly one must have come across people of all ages rethinking their life goals and resorting to new approaches considered beneficial for their well-being such as alternative medicine, vegetarianism, various forms of healing, meditation, yoga, healing crystals and stones, contemplative music and of course the different religious scriptures. One common thread linking these various practices is the emphasis on intuition as opposed to rationalism and the intellect, holism rather than reductionism, religious syncretism as opposed to dogmatism.
One important and even crucial feature of this development has also been a rediscovery of and respect for nature and the environment and to simple ways of living. For too long, we have put a blind faith in technology, separated human beings from nature and considered that science and technology can tame and master nature only to rediscover that man is just a tiny and insignificant part of nature, and to destroy nature means destroy oneself. Nowadays climate change has brutally revealed to us that the so-called “development and progress” are only a mere illusion, and many citizens are trying to correct past mistakes by planting trees, protecting our rivers and the ocean, and developing new ways for sustainable livelihood.
Except in rare cases, these new alternative ways of living are built around small communities. Such communities, which have come together as religious, spiritual group or environmental groups, draw members from different localities and in some cases from only one locality. They also serve to bond people together and protect them from the destructive isolation which many face in today’s society. How much better it would have been if each locality and neighborhood were to set up a local group that would serve its members to help one another in so many different ways. These groups existed in the past and fulfilled the needs of the people in terms of attachment, self-help, and solidarity.
American anthropologist Burton Benedict, in a survey of Mauritian society in the 1960s, found that in village councils, many disputes arose over the location of new buildings, the improvements of roads or water supply or the provision of services and ‘territorial alignments would often take precedence over questions of ethnic or religious alignments.’ He further added that youth clubs are important village associations. ‘Formed usually to play football, they command wide village support… the Ministry of Education has a youth organization section whose officers organize clubs and associations throughout the island. There were 765 clubs and organisations in 1963. Membership in a youth club often cuts across village alignments. Members may be drawn from all neighbourhoods and from all ethnic, religious, or linguistic categories.’
Today the needs of the people, especially of the youth may be different but we all need society’s support. At present these needs remain unfulfilled and may contribute to exacerbate many social ills which continue to plague our society. Not only have neighbourhood associations disappeared, but where they still exist, they have become dormant or continue to operate with very limited objectives.
There are however neighbourhood watch groups in many localities or syndics in many blocks of flats or housing estates. There are also some residents associations in many of the new settlements, but their objectives are very limited and are inadequate to meet the present needs of society. Ask anybody who has been a member of a syndic in a housing estate, s/he will tell you that the organization must be overhauled and reframed to meet present-day needs.
Some of the blame for the malfunctioning of these associations must be laid at the door of property developers, housing and local authorities and their top-down approach to planning. If a few property developers have provided the minimum amenities in terms of sports grounds, children’s playgrounds or jogging tracks, there are many high-rise apartment buildings without even these basic outdoor amenities. There is not even a hall for social gatherings made available to residents and neighbours, though I am told that a few housing units built by the State have been endowed with a small meeting place for residents.
Though the running of these associations must be the responsibility of the residents themselves, nothing should prevent the authorities from initially encouraging the setting up of such associations especially in localities populated by low-income groups. More importantly, the authorities must ensure that housing estates and residential apartments of a given size must be provided with both indoor as well as outdoor amenities such as parks, gardens and playgrounds, a multipurpose social hall as well as a proper framework to manage such amenities. A multipurpose hall can serve different functions: a meeting place for all, even a small library and in some places a room for homework. More resources will be needed to achieve these objectives.
Government, private sector firms as well as NGOs should assist in the setting up of these associations which will serve to build and reinvent communities. In so doing we’ll not only give a voice to citizens, but we’ll also be able to tap on the initiatives, resources and solidarity of local communities. We must also not forget that even in deprived areas there are numerous people with skills and resources who can significantly contribute to the welfare of citizens if they are called upon to do so.
It could be that the setting up such associations might not be welcomed by the central and local authorities given the wrong perception that their political interests would be threatened by neighbourhood activists. On the other hand, there is ample room to build a broad coalition of interests between village and municipal councillors and citizens, and to develop common objectives. It shouldn’t be too difficult for citizens and the concerned authorities to build a neighbourhood action plan which covers a broad range of subjects and a list of priority projects to be implemented both in the short and the long term.
Over the years we have unknowingly destroyed grassroots organisations and left everything to the central and local authorities. In so doing we have deprived ourselves of the resourcefulness of our citizens in many areas of public life. It is time the voices of citizens, especially those of the younger and upcoming generations, are heard about what kind of physical and social environment they would want to live in and what type of leisure and recreational activities are required to meet the needs of one and all – young and old. There may be different approaches to resolving these issues, but creating living and resilient communities is just one of them. They help to promote active citizenship and promote the well-being of our citizens.
Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 5 May 2023
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