Reinventing Communities

Creating living and resilient communities helps to promote active citizenship and create that day-to-day spirit of nationhood which has been one of our blessings living in this island

 By Sada Reddi

Hardly a week goes by without grim news about some crime having been committed, about another person reported 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 must have shocked many and left them wondering about what’s going wrong in our society and made our lives even more stressful.Community meeting. Pic – Star Community Care

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 impact of Covid-19, the relentless decline in the standard of living, the precarious situation of low-income groups, growing unemployment, the decline of the middle class and other classes in terms of livelihood and personal security. 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 neighborhood communities and building resilience to tackle such problems.

Even if we have not had a long tradition of community organisations or even charitable institutions, some form of solidarity has always been present during the worst conflicts which fortunately were never long-lasting. Religious organisations have always helped their members during times of hardship, for charity is a core value in all religions. Schools, orphanages, clinics, mutual societies, homes for the aged have all been set up as part of the charitable work undertaken by different groups. With the creation of village councils in the 1950s, there emerged informal grassroots organisations that worked towards safeguarding the interests of the people living in their localities.

American anthropologist Burton Benedict, in a survey of Mauritian society during that period found that ‘in village councils, many disputes arise over the location of new buildings, the improvements of roads or water supplies or the provision of services. Over such issues territorial alignments 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 live in and 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 ceased to function or continue to operate with their very limited objectives. There are neighbourhood watch groups in many localities or syndics in many blocks of flats or in housing estates. There are also some residents associations in many of the new settlements, but these 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 suit present-day needs.

Some of the blame for the malfunctioning of these associations must be laid down 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 playgrounds or jogging tracks, there are many high-rise apartment buildings without even these basic outdoor amenities. There is not even a hall for residents and neighbours to meet – though I am told that a few housing units which had been 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 these associations especially in localities with low-income groups. More importantly, the authorities must ensure that housing estates and residential apartments of above 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 many 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 want to ensure not only to give a voice to citizens but also to tap on the initiatives, resources and solidarity of local communities. We must 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 setting up such associations might not be welcomed by the central and local authorities given the false 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 central and local authorities, and in so doing deprived ourselves of the resourcefulness of our citizens in many areas of public life. It is time we give some thought to how we want our citizens to live and especially the young and the upcoming generations, what kind of physical and social environment they are going to live in. 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 create that day-to-day spirit of nationhood which has been one of our blessings living in this island.

* Published in print edition on 4 March 2022

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