“I do not see the government changing track. It won’t rock the boat”

Interview: Dharam Gokhool

‘Power is addictive. It will be business as usual’

 ‘It is for those who want to bring about a change of government to create that magic moment…
… not for a clan, caste, or community, but for a nation with a common destiny’

* ‘The Belal episode represents another flagrant mismanagement and failure of government to protect lives and property’

In this interview with Dharam Gokhool, a former MP and minister, we delve into the pressing issues plaguing the governance of Mauritius. D. Gokhool highlights a perceived systems failure, citing institutional issues, corruption, and the prevalence of a “virus of the Orange brand” in the Mauritian Operating System. As the conversation unfolds, Gokhool reflects on the possibility of a political shift, the role of small parties and NGOs in addressing crucial issues, and the potential for a “tipping point” driven by public discontent…

Mauritius Times: Something seems to be amiss in the way the affairs of the country are being managed. There appears to be a breakdown in a government’s effectiveness and response to crisis situations as we have seen recently. What’s your take on what is happening at the governance level?

 Dharam Gokhool: I would not say something. That would be an understatement of the seriousness and urgency of what the country is going through. We are in fact witnessing a systems failure.

The economy is still struggling to recover due to continuing misguided policy decisions at different levels and overall macroeconomic indicators do not point towards better days; our institutions seem to have been infected by the “Multiple Sclerosis” syndrome made up of political cronyism and favouritism; corruption has become a way of life for many and the recent legislation setting up yet another agency(the Financial Crime Commission) to fight corruption is an admission of the ineffectiveness and failure of institutions like the ICAC, the FIU and the IRSA; the drug scourge continues to wreak havoc in the lives of hundreds of families and our youth; our democratic values and way of life is under severe stress and strain and our National Assembly is a concrete illustration of how our temple of democracy is under the influence of authoritarianism.

The Mauritian OS (Operating System) seems to be infected by a virus of the Orange brand and it has become dysfunctional and corrupt. A concrete case in point is the Air Mauritius saga with disastrous international repercussions to our travel and tourism industry — a sector which is under the complete control of MSM outfits.

In the backdrop of the Belal traumatic episode of 15th January 2024, we have the painful and indelible memories of the Wakashio oil spill of June 25, 2020, which was an ecological disaster. With the now infamous and inappropriate remark “Kot mo fine fauté” of a Prime Minister who, instead of showing humility and compassion and timely response opted for provocation and an abdication of his responsibility as the Head of Government.

The Belal episode represents another flagrant mismanagement and failure of government to protect lives and property and bears witness of what has been described by many as yet another instance of “criminal incompetence”. Where the government failed, the population showed the way just like in the case of the Wakashio oil spill episode. The worst was prevented by the spontaneous proverbial solidarity and ingenuity of the Mauritian population in times of crisis.

In the post Belal episode, so far, there has been no official address to the nation by the government as to what happened, what went wrong and why. There are many unanswered questions in the minds and hearts of the people. In moments of crisis, the population expect their leaders to come forward and assume their duties and responsibilities and reassure them during times of crisis. Otherwise, people will draw their own conclusions. Scapegoating is never an act of courage.

* We appear not to have analyzed the root causes of persistent problems, or identified areas where improvements can be made to break the cycle of repeated flooding incidents around the island. Could it be due to bureaucratic barriers hindering the timely execution of projects aimed at addressing flood-related issues?

Generally, timely implementation of projects is an essential parameter for dealing with problems effectively, especially when flood-related issues are involved, which is now becoming a recurrent feature. Bureaucracy can help to expedite processes but unfortunately it can also hinder them. This is where a strong partnership between the bureaucracy and the political class together with a programmatic implementation of projects is important.

But the more fundamental issue to be addressed upfront is whether the priorities being formulated, and the projects being commissioned by government relate to the “persistent problems” to which you have referred to. Have the root causes been identified? Have lessons from the past been taken in consideration, to improve the present and the future? Or are the projects being commissioned likely to exacerbate the existing problems?

To illustrate my point, let’s take the example of the New Social Living Development Limited (NSLD) engaged in the construction of 12,000 Residential Units across the country. In the absence of an EIA (an Environment Impact Assessment), what is the guarantee that many of these sites will not add to the already growing flooding problem in future?

Recently, many NHDC houses at Gros-Cailloux were flooded causing damage from destroying electrical wiring and furniture to causing sewers to overflow. Consequently, people were unable to work, and emergency services stretched beyond their limit. If new homes were constructed to international housing standards and building regulations, damage to property could have been avoided.

My fear is that the government is under pressure to construct the maximum number of units of housing in a very short span of time as they embark on the last year of their mandate. In so doing, they are short circuiting and flouting a number of rules in the construction process. In the absence of a proper EIA for the different construction sites, how can we be confident that we will not have the same problem that we experience in Gros-Cailloux?

Climate change calls for multidisciplinary teams of professionals (architects, urban planners, engineers) to work closely with the bureaucracy, with institutional knowledge, and the community, with indigenous knowledge, to find sustainable solutions. But is government prepared to go down this road?

* Billions have been earmarked in the government budget to address these issues, yet the problems persist, continuing to haunt the local population. Is there a problem in the way government functions, or does it have to do with the political leadership?

Minister Bobby Hureeram, the Baahu Balli of construction claimed that billions are being spent to immunise the country from floods for the next 50 years. It took Belal only a few hours to call Bobby’s bluff.

Belal has provided graphic illustration of how public funds have gone down the drains with irreparable damages to freshly tarred roads and newly built drains.

Governments can bring legislation, set up bodies/authorities, vote funds, but nothing much will happen if there is an absence of proactive political leadership backed by professional management, public scrutiny, and accountability.

Again, the Belal episode bears testimony to how public institutions fumbled in their response to the life-threatening flood situation that prevailed in the capital Port Louis and elsewhere. Why the Police were so poorly equipped and why did the SMF not step in?

* To be fair, the public sector has consistently demonstrated, both in the past and quite recently, that it possesses the resources, skills, and competences necessary to efficiently serve the public. Do you get the impression that the level of public service is declining?

The post-independence track record and until quite recently, as you rightly put it, our public sector performance and contribution has been commendable. As an ex-MP and Minister, I have myself had the privilege of working with some remarkable, dedicated and highly capable public officers. It was not uncommon for officers to put across their views and opinions forcefully and without any fear of reprisal.

From what I observe and what I am told, lately much water has flown under the bridge. Favouritism and political interference has today become the norm. There is a fear factor prevailing all over the place. Many prefer to keep quiet. The recent video clip of a NEOC meeting aired on MBC-TV gives us an indication of the quasi-monologue type deliberations taking place.

Frustration is rampant. Professionalism is on the decline. A laisser-aller and laisser-faire attitude is palpable across the public sector. Political nominees are everywhere, trespassing the duties and responsibilities normally assigned to public officers. The latest example is the sidelining of the Acting Director of the Met Office by yet another political nominee.

Members of the public who interface with public officers often bear the brunt of disgruntled officers. It is indeed a sad state of affairs. I shall refrain from generalising but it will be a gross misrepresentation to say, what we often hear in certain quarters: Tou bon, tou korek (Everything under control, everything is fine)

The fact of the matter is an overall deterioration of the standards of public service.

* Under these circumstances, there is the risk of people losing trust in the effectiveness of government agencies to, for instance, anticipate and deal with threats to public safety and property (through the provision of accurate and timely weather forecasts), manage and regulate drainage systems to mitigate flooding by the concerned central and local authorities. That’s pretty serious, isn’t it?

People lives and their property matter. Prevention of any threats to public safety and property should be high on the agenda of any government and should be handled with utmost responsibility and rigour. There are agencies like the NDRRMC (National Disaster, Risk Reduction and Management Centre), NCC (National Crisis Committee), NEOC (National Emergency Operations Command) mandated to work closely with MMS (Mauritius Meteorological Services) to provide accurate and timely weather forecasts and take all steps to deal with crisis and emergencies, in a co-ordinated, timely and effective manner. The slightest mistake can have fatal consequences.

The public confessions of Vice Prime Minister Husnoo that the right decisions were not taken on time and the assertion of the Prime Minister that he was monitoring the situation on as 24/7 basis are very disturbing in view of the cacophony that prevailed around the handling of the Belal episode and in particular, the erratic timing of the issue of cyclone warnings, which put the population at risk.

The scapegoating of the Director of the Met Office added another layer to the overall mismanagement that the public witnessed live and direct.

* It appears that we lack an effective town and country planning program to optimize the use of our limited land resources. Why hasn’t this been prioritized by our successive governments?

Over the last few decades there have been a number of attempts to integrate sustainable development planning in our overall development strategy.

For example, proposals contained in the Mission d’Aménagement du Territoire à l’Ile Maurice (MATIM) report of 1976, the National Physical Development Plan (NPDP) of 1994 and National Development Strategy (NDS) Report of 2003 have been taken on board in developing environmental policies and strategies in most sectors to ensure environmental protection.

The first National Environment Strategy and National Environment Action Plan (NES 1 & NEAP 1) were developed in 1988, for the period 1988 – 1998 followed by the second NES and NEAP for the period 1999 – 2009.

More recently, in 2013, the “Maurice Ile Durable” (MID) – Policy, Strategy and Action Plan for a new long-term vision for achieving sustainable development was adopted by the then Labour government. A MID Fund has also been instituted to fund sustainable development projects.

Unfortunately, when governments change, priorities change. To-day, sustainable development is not high on the agenda of this government. Although it has taken commitments through the NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and introduced the Climate Change Act (2020), many of the costly projects being undertaken by government (Metro and the NSLD) have been exempted for EIAs (Environmental Impact Assessments), with the potential of irreversible damage to sustainability.

All throughout the Belal episode, the Minister of Environment was nowhere to be seen or heard. A clear indication of the degree of commitment to environmental sustainability!

* Would you say that the solutions could only be found outside the country, through the involvement of external expertise, which would bring fresh perspectives and innovative solutions to address these recurring issues?

We should not underestimate our local expertise. They have a better grasp of the local ground realities. Civil society is also very conscious of the challenges of environmental urgency. We have a number of environmental activists who are dedicated to the cause of environmental sustainability. Our universities can also play a critical role.

In dealing with environmental challenges, the Labour government had roped in the expertise of Professor Joel De Rosnay and other disaster management experts, like Mrs Veronica Beles.

Being given that climate change is a complex, fast evolving phenomenon, the strategy to be adopted should be one where there is a strategic alliance of local and foreign expertise, backed by strong, unwavering political commitment.

It is also imperative that the Climate Change Committee provided for in the Climate Change Act be revisited and transformed into a permanent multi-stakeholder Climate Change Observatory to support climate change policy initiatives.

* On the other hand, what are your thoughts on the government’s decisions to, first, involve the Financial Services Commission in compensations for owners of vehicles damaged due to the flooding in Port Louis last week, and second, declaring Tuesday, January 23, as a non-working day for civil servants (except for those in essential services), with the private sector being left to follow suit? Isn’t there a hint of populism in the first decision and an abdication of responsibility by the State in the second one?

The Financial Services Commission is a regulator and according to its mandate it “regulates and supervises entities licensed and/or registered under its Enabling Laws”. By getting involved in compensations for owners of vehicles damaged during the floods, is it not encroaching upon the responsibilities assigned to the insurance agencies by law? Is it not setting some kind of an “evil precedent”? What are the real motivations behind this move? Is it a move initiated by the FSC on its own or is it being manipulated to do some damage control for those in power?

As regards the January 23 decision which has given rise to various controversies, I fail to understand the rationale behind that decision. Were civil servants more exposed to risks than private sector employees? Should government make decisions of public interest on a discriminatory basis?

These are legitimate questions in the minds of many.

* It’s unlikely that, in the run-up to the next elections, the current government would decide to take the bull by the horns and address head-on the issues hindering effective long-term solutions to many problems affecting the local population. Moreover, the people have not been sufficiently vocal in calling for better governance in so many areas of public life. We ultimately get what we deserve, don’t we?

As I mentioned earlier, there is a systems failure. The Mauritian OS (Operating System) seems to be infected by a virus of the orange brand and it has become dysfunctional.

The political discourse on the side of government is one of remarkable, spectacular, path-breaking achievements in all sectors, which is in sharp contrast to the simmering discontent among large section of the population.

But in view of the attitude of indifference of government towards the rising public discontent, I do not see the government changing track. It won’t rock the boat and go for a trade-off between short-term pains for long-term gains. Power is addictive. It will be business as usual.

People in Mauritius do not have a tradition of bringing political change through violence. They prefer the ballot box. There is a lot of tolerance and resilience in the Mauritian DNA, but they also know when and where the buck should stop.

Our past political history is a reminder to those who take the population for granted. Ultimately it is people’s vote and voice that matters. The wake-up can be quite brutal.

* You will also have surely observed that it’s mostly ‘small parties’ or NGOs that are frequently the ones addressing crucial issues like the environment, urbanization, wetlands, and the shrinking areas of public beaches. Such initiatives are seldom taken up by mainstream parties, whether in or out of power. Why does this pattern persist?

There is a perpetual paradox in politics. Very often, when in Opposition, political parties make a lot of promises; but unfortunately, once in government, they do not deliver on all their promises. In Opposition, political parties who have been in government will tread cautiously. Public policy making has often to weigh contradictory concerns and interests before arriving at decisions.

Politics is not an exact science; it is an art. Philosophically, as the saying goes: Politics is “art of the possible” and the idea is that politics is often a matter of pragmatism, instead of idealism.

But it should not always be pragmatism versus idealism. It is always possible to find a middle ground and to move on. Conflicts of interest can be resolved or reconciled through the art of statesmanship.

* Sometimes, a minor incident is all it takes to oust a government from power. We have witnessed in the recent past the “invisible hand” of public discontent at play in such scenarios. Do you see that happening in the current circumstances?

Way back in 2000, Canadian journalist and author, Malcolm Gladwell, in his book ‘The Tipping Point’ addressed this issue. He explained that the tipping point is that “magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.”

It is for those who want to bring about a change of government to create that magic moment – the tipping point – that will transform the simmering public discontent into widespread hope. Not for a clan, caste, or community, but for a nation with a common destiny. In the current circumstances, what our country needs is a transformational people-centric change.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 26 January 2024

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