The Sheriff Is In Town

By Nobel P. Loser

Quite recently, in this same column, we praised our minister-cum-sheriff. Quite rightly, we also advised him to show some kind of restraint. In words and in ministerial demeanour. Quite unsurprisingly, we must add, the sheriff in the minister has again prevailed on two issues. One national and the other fit for the gutter press.

As far as we are concerned, we will stick to the national issue. And to be frank and straightforward, keeping a little portion of sheriff alive within us can cause no harm to the body. Ministers and politicians in general need this tablet of adrenaline to show a sense of “work appearance” attitude.

In Mauritius though, many are a sheriff in behaviour only; and only few others act as a real sheriff. Our own Sheriff — time will say if he was one in behaviour only — addressed the very serious issue of flour in an uncommon but still diplomatic language. Commenting on the implications of the issue, he only said – “We take good note!” Candidly said but still words pregnant with meaning.

We have done some research and homework on the subject. Our honest conclusion, based on available facts, is that we can’t blame the Sheriff for everything. But we should get prepared and be ready to blame him for wrong policies. On this issue, and on others, when the time comes.

Regarding the issue of flour, let’s put it this way, bluntly. The policy on flour is nothing less than an open day politico-economic brutality enforced against the people of this country. And all governments have been guilty for having failed — for unknown or untold reasons — to tackle the problem head-on.

Our consumer friendly NGOs, usually vociferous on futile issues, are as silent as a fat cat after food on the subject. Quite legitimately, our mainstream media have made the right choice – as they themselves are in big business, and it makes sense for them to help big business doing great business. Even at the expense of people’s interest.

To help our Sheriff get his facts right before he embarks on any policy shift, we will suggest him a few things. To read with much care and attention the Commission of Enquiry report on the STC and any other public report or document that refers to the main subject. Of course, statistics and public records alone will never suffice. So we suggest our Sheriff does some serious homework.

To get to the heart of the subject, he will need to find answers to some important questions. How many companies on this Island receive this kind of maharaja treatment and who are they? To those who argue that the State is duty bound to make sure that an investor be allowed to invest private money in a line of business and that it should be the declared policy of the State to see to it that that investor be able to recoup its investments and for the company to be financially viable, we ask again how many SMEs/companies receive this kind of treatment?

How many more years our trusted and respected flour mill and others working under the protection of the Maharaja Scheme would require recouping their investments? Should we take it that to make ends meet no dividends have been distributed during the past several years/decades by companies protected under the Maharaja Scheme? Should we take it that their top level managers still travel by public transport as an indication of sacrifices they make in the greater interest of the companies concerned? Ask anybody at the Finance ministry who it was that showed up with a pocket calculator and why for unsolicited talks in the recent past?

The answers to these questions and to many more are simple. The People’s successive governments have failed the people’s trust for reasons unexplained and mostly unknown.

Now the key question. In the business of trading, even CPE students will tell you, the price for bulk purchase is not the same as retail purchase or purchases made in broken quantity. For flour, all governments have allowed tender procedures not for bulk purchase but for broken quantities. The toxic practice has been that only fifty percent of our annual requirement is floated via tender. The end result is that consumers always get the bad price on purchasing and they pay a high price for the product at retail outlets. Without subsidies, the commodity can become unaffordable.

All this makes no sense. Not economically, not even financially, not for the country and not for consumers. But all this makes sense for the company and its shareholders from whom all governments have been purchasing fifty percent of our national requirement. We thus pay the price for a bad tender and for a bad policy. By the way have you ever heard the word ‘competition’ when it comes to flour in the local media? Or from powerful lobbyists’ organizations? Even if a bad story is to be published, it ends up not being written at all.

If our Sheriff is serious and means business, we kindly advise him to revisit this file from A to Z before envisaging any policy shift. But still we need to caution him. This road is jammed with powerful economic lobbywallahs and networks of “noubanisme” within the media and media intelligentsia as well as strong part-time businessmen, not excluding influential heads within the ranks of powerful politicians. A few others who lobby against the people’s interest are to be found within the public system. From new evidence gathered, the road ahead is likely to be a tough climb. We take the risk of giving our Sheriff the benefit of doubt. And we wish him well if he decides to take a chance with chance. He should not get discouraged. These warnings stand as a challenge for him.

We also suggest that our Sheriff reads the submission given by Michael Masters of Masters Capital Management before the US Senate on 20 May 2008. The latter, extensively and convincingly, gives and explains the reasons behind price hikes as far as food commodities and fuel are concerned.

He puts the blame squarely on the back of speculators, the index speculators as he calls them. Michael Masters makes no distinction between partisan economists and partisan media persons who refuse to acknowledge the harm caused by index speculators in price hikes. Under the prevailing circumstances, the law of demand and supply becomes a sham, China bashing for excess demand a mere pretext, and harvest associated with climatic conditions a lie when supply is constant or on the high side.

Masters puts the percentage of price hike for wheat at an unbelievable size of 64%, a figure representing only the share of professional speculators. From March 2003 to March 2008, he suggests wheat price has increased by 314%. He also argues convincingly that the sizeable profits made by unscrupulous speculators form part and parcel of the supposedly actual market price. Those speculators receive the full support of Wall Street financial mammoths and sometimes the tacit and/or active support of US public institutions.

How things happen in Mauritius is not very complicated to understand if we take a closer look at them. Our governments suffer from either political passivity and so they candidly and silently allow the Maharaja Scheme to perpetuate and thus don’t care about us. Or, in terms of ideas and imagination, they simply are unable to challenge the status quo even when this is bad for the people.

We therefore humbly challenge the Sheriff to challenge the status quo.

* Published in print edition on 28 January 2011

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