“Mauritians need to breathe, and we need a complete overhauling of the current system

Only a united opposition can help not to play in the hands of the MSM-led alliance

Interview: Sheila Bunwaree, Sociologist

* ‘People increasingly reject the inclination of traditional parties for dynastic politics, the reproduction of the same political elite’

* ‘There is enough evidence of how incompetence, corruption, drug trafficking… have polarised our little Mauritius. We must put an end to all this before it is too late

Sociologist Sheila Bunwaree takes us on a tour of the current issues of concern to the country, starting with the appointment of an outsider to the National Audit Office. She comments on the official responses to the questions on the extended programme, the setting up of a new entity to oversee social housing and the importance of the latter for all citizens, the need for a united opposition to prevent another msm-led government from comingto power.

Mauritius Times:The latest controversy that hit the headlines, this week, relates to the appointment, contrary to the normal practice, of an outsider as director of theNational Audit Office (NAO) in replacement of Mr Charanjivsingh Romooah. Without putting in doubt the competence of the new director, Mr Dharamraj Paligadu, however the manner in which the appointment has been made has raised eyebrows and given rise to serious concerns about the continuing independence of the Office. How do you react to that?

Sheila Bunwaree: Nothing surprises us any more with the MSm-led government, particularly regarding the latter’s capacity to disrespect and flout our constitutional values and principles.

S 110 (1) of the Constitution clearly states that the appointment of the director of Audit ‘shall be made by the PSC, acting after consultation with the Prime Minster and the leader of the opposition….’ Not only does this procedure seem to have been ignored altogether, but as you mention, the person appointed is a ‘non cadre’ (outsider) of the NAO.

Assuming that this too is not a problem, we must however be sure that anyone appointed as Director of Audit has the necessary moral rigour to do what is expected of him with utmost integrity and to act independently. I do not know Mr Paligadu personally. He may be a very competent and impartial person, but such a Constitutional postdemands someone who will not cow down to the authorities, who will function in all transparency and independence.

I saw some comments about him. There is one in particular which struck me: “…que c’est un fonctionnaire consensuel…” When consensus borders on opacity and subservience, it can be very worrying. We are here dealing with a position which demands scrutiny to the finest detail – we are dealing with public funds. Accountability and transparency should be on top of the agenda.

When appointments are made in the manner that we have just seen, there is good reason to start doubting whether the person will be able to live up to the expectations of the post and the people.

* Another appointment at the New Social Living Development Ltd, a private company set up by the government with a budget of Rs 4.5 billion earmarked for the construction of 8000 housing units and that willnot come under the scrutiny of Parliament, is also raising some concerns. Isn’t it too early to say whether those concerns are justified or not?

Allow me to first and foremost ask whether the country really needed the setting up of NSLD Ltd at a time when it is heavily indebted and juggling with a multiplicity of mutually reinforcing crises such as climate change, inflation crisis, debt, the food crisis,etc. Havinga decent roof is a fundamental human right. It is the responsibility of any truly human-centred state to help those without shelter to find a safe refuge.Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Mauritius has ratified recognises the right to adequate housing as a fundamental human right.

Any logical person with a minimum understanding of what’s going on in terms of governance in this country, would tell you that the NSLD is here mostly to gobble up our very scarce resources and to create jobs for the cronies of the current regime except for a few meritorious professionals. Couldn’t the government ensure a better functioning of the NHDC, the National Empowerment Foundation, the ministry of housing and land Use Planning itself to ensure the construction and delivery of the new housing units?

It’s therefore not a question of being too early or not; concerns such as the one you express are most legitimate. The Minister of Housing’s response to a most pertinent question by Osman Mahomed regarding the 25% v/s the 10% (contrary to the regulations in place) paid to the 14 entrepreneurs hired for the construction of the 8000 social housing units, speaks volumes as to where we are heading. 

* That there is an urgent need for social housing units for thousands of low-income families is beyond doubt, but there are also those of the younger generation of the middle class, even upper middle class who have today been priced out of the housing market, with first-time buyers being particularly marginalised, due to high land and construction costs. It seems there’s more to gain for property developers from the sale of villas to expatriates than from the local market. Should and can government step in?

There is no doubt that there is a nexus between the land issue and housing. Affordability and accessibility to decent housing depends largely on the availability of land which remains an important asset. All stakeholders inclusive of government should realise that it is in the best interest of the nation to work towards an equitable and inclusive land reform policy. But instead of doing so, all governments, some more than others, privilege an erroneous and lopsided form of development, based on IRS, smart cities, huge shopping malls, let alone the various leases/bail with stories resonating with the stag and Black Label saga.
The largest component of FDIs which come into Mauritius goes to real estate,with very little job opportunities or meaningful development for the people. It is a form of land grab at the expense of the poorer segments of society including the middle class.

The Truth and Justice commission which devoted a huge chunk of its report to the land issue has clearly shown how hundreds of families have been dispossessed of their lands. A number of recommendations were made but very few, if at all, have been implemented.The conspiracy of silence around the land question cannot go on. Land will, amongst a few other factors, be a determining factor in the reconciling of our nation in the years to come.

It is high time that the population votes in a government which is committed to addressing land ownership, tied to the colonial injustices and different patterns of historic violence linked to slavery and indentured labour. Failure to do so will only exacerbate the growing poverty and inequality and together with it the housing crisis.

* Similarly, could it be argued that said that the surge in criminal activity in recent years could be attributed, though not justifiable at all, to the marginalisation of large swathes of the people and budding entrepreneurs from the domestic economy – thus the temptation for and recourse to easy money in all manner of deals and corrupt practices especially in relation to public sector procurements, and even drug trafficking?

That there is a rise in criminal activity is undisputable. On each day that passes by, we hear of some kind of crime or the other, some much more serious than others but all of which reflecta deep malaise in our society.

Nothing justifies the temptation for easy money and/or corrupt practices. I do not buy the argument that a low and/or inadequate salary can tempt people to enter into all sorts of deals. More often than not, people fall prey to such temptations because of their greed and an absence of ethics and integrity.

However, there is another category of people who are becoming increasingly poor, who are struggling to feed their families and some others who have become victims of drugs and drug trafficking, and who do not hesitate to engage in some form of illegal/criminal activity to satisfy their needs and wants.

* Xavier Duval’s PNQ on the Extended Programme, last Tuesday, has put into the spotlight a very serious problem and the threat that this poses to our society in the long run: continuing education failure at a very young age that could penalise a child for life and potentially lead them eventually into petty or serious crime. What’s your take on that?

The issue of Extended Programme (EP) that the leader of opposition has framed his PNQ around, last Tuesdayis of utmost importance. The high failure rate of the EP has very severe consequences not only for our youth and their self-esteem as individuals, but also for the economy and society.

The failure and irrelevance of the Extended Programmehas been decried by many pedagogues and researchers, including myself but little attention has been paid by the authorities.The responses of the Minister to the different questions raised by the Leader of the Opposition particularly as regards the recommendations made by the World Bank in its evaluation of 2020, leave a lot to be desired. Her answerssomehow seems to give reason to a trade unionist who a few days back, in an interview accorded to a weekly, described the minister as “usée, depassée, et doit être remplacée…”

To the questionas to whether she thinks innovative methods and pedagogies could make a difference, she seems to think of these only in terms of technologies. The question of a differentiated curriculum for EP children, mostlyliving in “disadvantage” – and the importance of introducing a wider panoply of disciplines, including technical and vocational subjects, thus catering totheir needs, talent and interest, are also issues that the minster was rather evasive about.

The minister went to the extent of saying that there are studies done at the international level, showing that such subjects cannot be introduced at lower levels of education, but she failed to tell us exactly who did these studies and where. Contexts are extremely important and cannot be ignored.Sadly, the ministry’s focus is still centred on exams and assessment. The minister speaks of adaptation of the assessment system for the EP children. Adapting assessment without revisiting the curricula defies all logic. It is perhaps time to shift from an exam driven curricula to a curricula driving the exams.

* There are serious problems that we’ll have to grapple with now and in the future, be it in relation to the governance of the country and corruption at all levels, law and order, education, housing, the fight against the drug scourge, cost of living, etc., but it would seem that our political parties, especially the ones that are expected to drive real change are least concerned about such issues, so preoccupied are they with alliance making. Do you think it’s this disconnect with the people’s concerns that is driving an increasing number of electors away from the so-called traditional parties?

You are absolutely right- the whole of humanity, including us here in Mauritius, will have to grapple with a range of issues in an increasingly volatile, complex and uncertain world. These will no doubt have huge implications on our daily existential conditions. To think that politicians are not aware of the problems affecting people’s lives would be a mistake. But do they show sufficient concern, are they encouraging thinkers, strategists and technicians to find solutions to the emerging challenges we are confronted with as a nation, are legitimate questions.

Perhaps the lack of visibility on this front gives the impression that there is a disconnect and in certain cases the disconnect might even be real! However, it is not only such disconnect that is driving people away from the traditional parties. There is also the fact that people increasingly reject their inclination for dynastic politics, the reproduction of the same political elite, absence of political parties’ internal democratisation capacity, leader centricity, male dominated politics, lack of capacity to innovate.

Significant numbers of people also abhor the idea that there is insufficient room for new blood and new vision. They also speak of a particular fatigue: ‘same old face’ and ‘same discourse’ fatigue.

* On the other hand, we see a number of small political parties gradually grouping into bigger political entities in view of the forthcoming elections to confront both the government and the main opposition parties. It remains to be seen whether these alliances will last and eventually win the trust of a large chunk of the electorate, but as of now it appears they mightunwittinglyplay into the hand of the MSM-led alliance. Do you think they can be trusted?

We are unfortunately saddled by an electoral system which is biased and characterised by the ‘winner takes it all’ syndrome as well as a population which remains largely ‘’politically uneducated’’. The stalling of the electoral reforms and the persistent absence of a dose of proportional makes it extremely difficult for new upcoming parties to make a dent in the system.

This said, there is a general trust deficit in the country. This coupled with the current lack of direction and the whittling away of democracy are pushing people to search for something new, for an alternative.

Given these circumstances, if alliances of the smaller and newer parties can unite around a creative manifesto, which provides solutions to some of the deeply entrenched problems of our society rather than a shopping list of measures, they would be able to impact the electorate. They must however have coherent, competentand credible women and men candidates,anchored around values such as integrity, meritocracy and national unity, and develop an effective strategy to counter the adversary.

But for now, I am much more in favour of a larger united opposition – a unification of all forces, so as to get rid of the rot which has installed itself. The many unscrupulous elements in governance and management of the country must be done away with the soonest possible. Mauritians need to breathe, and we need a complete overhauling of the current system. Only a united opposition can help not to play in the hands of the MSM-led alliance.

* A foreign observer of the local political situation recently made this comment: ‘Very interesting (article) about the coalition May Day rally and the absence of the opposition. I presume this absence indicates various things – the absence of a formal coalition, but also the instability of the informal coalition. And the suspicion is that one party will peel off and join with the MSM…’ This begs the question: what if the LP-MMM-PMSD leaders do not find common ground for an alliance?

I certainly think it is the duty of each responsible citizen, who is truly concerned about thewellbeing of the nation as well as the future of his/her own children and grandchildren, to do everything possible to ensure that all serious opposition political parties do find the necessary common ground for a larger alliance of the opposition.

Finding common ground may be less difficult if people are prepared to let go of their egos and their immediate vested interests but focus more on the substance and sustainability of their respective political parties and Mauritian society as a whole.

New forms of power sharing along gender and youth lines, with more room for competenciesand meritocracy is what Mauritius badly needs. Modern Mauritius deserves much better than mere realpolitik!

* What do you think the continuation in office of the MSM-led alliance would meanfor the country?

I am sorry to say that such an occurrence will be a real disaster for the country. It will be catastrophic; the little chance that we have now of repairing, rebuilding and reinventing the nation for a better, more resilient future for all, will simply disappear forever, if the MSM comes back to power.

There is enough evidence of how incompetence, inefficiencies, ineptitude, corruption, drug trafficking around a parallel economy, mismanagement, greed, persistent destruction of our ecological system, communal politics have polarised our little Mauritius,destroying the Mauritian social fabric.

We must put an end to all this before it is too late.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 12 May 2023

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