Shaping Our Future From Below

We may all agree that what people refer to as the ‘system’ remains a major obstacle in the path of progress, yet one should not despair of improving our society. History provides us with the reassurance that people have employed various strategies to improve society

Many people crying for change in various areas to improve living and working conditions have reached the conclusion that the ’system’ is the major barrier to (positive) change in this country. Whether they are discussing politics, policies and any other issue, the diagnosis is the same. Often it is with a feeling of despair that they articulate their grievances and the same tone echoes in everyone’s ears. This is true for Mauritius as for any other country. It is a problem which has been debated for centuries, and is captured in the eternal debate between reformism and revolution and different variations on the same theme.

We may all agree that what they refer to as the ‘system’ remains a major obstacle in the path of progress, yet one should not despair of improving our society. History provides us with the reassurance that people have employed various strategies to improve society; our history is but a continuous conquest of rights and freedom — though we should guard against seeing progress as something linear or inevitable.

Two broad strategies have been employed to fight the ‘system’, one from outside which bypasses the system; others have fought it from inside, that is by making oneself the agent of change and securing incremental changes, however small they might have been but eventually proved to be of great significance in the long run.

Take the case of private tuition in primary schools. There are some parents who refuse to provide for private tuition for their children for a number of reasons; there are others who can afford to simply opt for private schools. While the majority will accept private tuition somewhat grudgingly even if they are aware of its limited educational value, they have employed various strategies to nullify its baneful effects.

Some parents will ensure that after tuition, from 5 to 8 o’clock, their children get the opportunity to enjoy and relax by doing some sports or some reading for pleasure, watching television, and thereafter to focus either on school work or tuition work after arrangement with their teachers. Most of Saturdays and Sundays are reserved for leisure activities and there is no question of two private tuitions.

This is just one of the many strategies which can and have be used to fight the ‘system’ until such time when an adequate number of state colleges will be made available for each and every primary school to ensure a real and smooth transition from primary to secondary education without any selective examination.

A brick wall of indifference

The identification of the ‘system’ as an obstacle is not confined to education. It is equally relevant in every walk of life whenever one seeks to improve society or an organisation. Many people are repeatedly telling us that whenever they seek to fight corruption, nepotism, malpractices, environmental degradation, arbitrary power, traffic problems and injustices of every kind, they come up against a brick wall of indifference, bureaucratic incompetence, institutional inertia, sheer vested interests, government incompetence or public apathy.

Not only do they blame the various authorities of the day for the various ills that affect them in their daily lives, the blame is also shifted to government as it is viewed increasingly as a “cash and carry” government. The attempt to make a change at the head of government decried by many, and rightly so as both anti-constitutional and anti-democratic, will simply make matters worse.

At the international level, government’s incompetence was brought up and allowed us to better grasp better what we have lost in the wake of the Mauritius-India DTAA renegotiation when the Prime Minister of Singapore, in an exclusive interview to an Indian newspaper ‘The Hindu’, let it be known to India that he does not want his country to be treated in the same manner as Mauritius. He argued in favour of a special status for Singapore, while in our case we gave up on that same special status.

Whatever the issue which is likely to become a major preoccupation of the people, there will always exist various ways to fight these ills both from inside and outside. In Afghanistan, policemen living in very remote areas used to receive their salaries through several intermediaries, and a cut was deducted from the salaries throughout the process at the level of each intermediary. What the policeman pocketed at the end of the month was but a fraction of his salary.

Recently technology has altogether removed the corrupt practice — his full salary, which comes to a huge amount, much to the surprise of the police officer himself, is henceforth credited directly into his bank account through mobile payment. What police officers initially took to be a huge salary increase was in fact their normal salary. In this case technology has been used to eliminate corruption. Other strategies include protest of various kinds, which over the years have yielded positive results even when they were not entirely successful.

Every day we hear of protests of various kinds against the encroachment on public beaches, pollution of rivers and the seas, illegal constructions, nuisance caused by lorries running along on narrow roads destroying the peace of villagers and putting their lives at risk. Where the authorities are incompetent, they simply turn a deaf ear for they lack the ability to come up with appropriate solutions. In other cases some civil servants or concerned officers, who have a sense of duty and service will use their resourcefulness to find an acceptable solution. For example, where traffic poses a problem to a school, they simply put up a road sign banning traffic during certain hours, or when lorries become a nuisance, similar action is taken. Small solutions can provide durable solutions to what are perceived as insuperable problems.

Reformist solutions

Similarly, in the field of politics, barring revolutionary action, which has never really taken place in the course of our history, reformist solutions have always been tried and been successful. Our major political parties – the Labour Party or the MMM – have never been revolutionary except in their rhetoric, but their reformist initiatives have in the long run bettered our political system and society. Both trade unionism and the Welfare State are reformist achievements within a capitalist system which to a certain extent have humanized society and benefited the common people.

One should not therefore despair of fighting the system. Whenever we are confronted with any system which is inimical to the public good of the people, we have always resorted to various strategies to put pressure for change — some successful, some less — but people have never given up on their principles or convictions. People not satisfied with major parties have set up their own parties to contest general elections and in some cases scored between 2000-3000 votes. Politicians have split from their parties to seek greater autonomy in their action; ecological movements maintain pressure against those who grab public beaches at the expense of the public.

All these show that the fight for democracy and a better life is an unending struggle in which different kinds of stakeholders participate at all times. Changes are always taking place. We have to push for more positive changes, accelerate them and support them. Public opinion contributes a lot towards the attainment of these objectives.

We often forget that more than 30 candidates got elected for the first time at the last election. It may be argued that this figure will probably go up to 40 or more candidates next time round, and parties would do well to ensure proper selection of new candidates so as to exclude nonentities and psychopaths who, in a flight of madness, may destroy every good thing we have so patiently built over the years. These changes will not be limited to the political field; new blood also will flow in both public and private organisations.

Myths and magicians

The spate of protests which we have witnessed in recent weeks will continue to increase as we move closer to elections. Normally we should expect that people’s grievances would be aired in the open after two and a half or three years into a government’s mandate – incidentally around the time when political parties start preparations for the next elections. This time it seems to be surfacing sooner than expected; this is a bad sign for the government of the day. The people have given the government two long years for the magician to work his magic to conjure up the “economic miracle”. But the magician seems to have lost his magic wand; myths, which had dazzled so many for so many years, have dissolved into thin air.

When a government fails to deliver on what the people consider the most important pledges, they will seek alternatives. No longer will people just wait for a series of new pledges. The debate on what should be done should intensify and the people must continue to protest and press for the redress of issues, which concern them directly and ensure they find their way on the political agenda. This means greater public awareness, mobilization and winning support for important matters and preparing the long list of issues from below. We must participate actively in whatever way we can to better our society and make sure that that these are implemented in a reasonable time.

We all have a stake in this country and its future, and we must contribute to shape it the way we want and not abdicate our duty and responsibility to those who want to take us back to feudal times.

Sada Reddi

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