Incidents at La Butte and Residence Barkly —
The message must be loud and unequivocal: Squatting and occupation of State or private lands is illegal and will not be tolerated in the country
The ruckus at La Butte and Residence Barkly on Friday last exposes so many unsavoury aspects of our country. It also raises a series of legitimate questions.
Why have the leaders and front bench members of the major opposition parties all showed up there, seemingly with all ‘guns blazing’, on that day? Why have they not shown equal determination to seek exemplary sanction against VPM Showkutally Soodhun when he threateningly declared that he would have killed the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly had his bodyguard given him his service revolver?
What potent actions did they take to contest the unjustified government decision to again hike gasoline and diesel prices last month when diverse taxes and levies covering contributions to the Road Development Authority, the Build Mauritius Fund, the MID Fund and subsidies to support the price of cooking gas, rice and flour represent some 50% to 60% of these prices? Why have they not taken any cogent actions to contest any of the many controversial decisions taken by government? Were they trying to find a reasonable solution to resolve the logjam in La Butte and Residence Barkly or striving to gain political mileage from the distress and hardships of people?
Whenever people in the country face hardships, our common objective should be to find humane and reasonable solutions to resolve them, bearing in mind the overriding principle that public interest must prevail at all times. Responsible politicians must play a positive role in this common endeavour. Pouring oil on fire to take advantage of the angst of people only makes matters worse. Any pandering to vote bank politics at the expense of the interests of the nation is anathema to the multitude.
According to government, the compulsory acquisition of land in these two localities in the context of the Metro Express project has been done in full consultation with the people concerned and in a conciliatory mode to resolve differences. Does the process used meet the test of objective scrutiny? It should be flagged that despite their hardships, most of the people affected in the two localities have publicly declared being in favour of the Metro Express project and the modernization of the transport system but are unhappy with the lack of due process. The oversight of the Judiciary has helped comfort and assure petitioners that their complaints have been given due consideration in their rulings.
The situation in La Butte and Residence Barkly has also exposed the problem of encroachment and building as well as squatting on State lands under the nose of municipal authorities and the Ministry of Lands. While it is essential that these cases be treated with humanity and compassion, it should not occult the basic fact that those encroaching or occupying State lands are illegally doing so for years. It would therefore be preposterous for some to leverage their illegal occupation of State lands to exact exorbitant compensations when they basically have no legitimate standing for such claims.
Over recent decades, there has been overindulgence towards squatters and people illegally occupying scarce State lands. The government has also periodically regularised their situation. Has this approach encouraged a culture of deliberate squatting and occupation of scarce State lands in the country? The message must be loud and unequivocal: Squatting and occupation of State or private lands is illegal and will not be tolerated in the country.
All citizens must abide by the rule of law. There cannot be two categories of citizens in the country: Those who respect and diligently abide by the law and the rules applicable and those who do not. This condemnable practice also relates to street hawkers who unfairly compete against rate paying traders or illegal taxis and vans or unregistered bookmakers. Any attempt to regularize the activities of these illegal operators should above all aim at putting an end to such unlawful practices and certainly not spawn a new crop of illegal operators in these activities.
Land is a very scarce resource in the country. We have, as a nation, to address poverty and the housing needs of the have-nots of society. However, poverty does not mean licence to occupy and squat over scarce state lands. Government policy must also help hard working mainstream citizens who also find difficulties in owning a house, to do so, in a context of constantly escalating land prices.
The Director and senior cadres of the MBC have been collateral casualties of the events of last Friday. This raises legitimate questions on the general performance of our national broadcasting corporation in a context when reports indicate that the TV audience for the prime time 7.30 pm news has this year plummeted from 25% in the first quarter to 17% in the second quarter. This is presumably due to the fact that it has been turned into an inept propaganda machine by government and those avidly seeking to inordinately monopolize the limelight on a daily basis. Dutiful obsequience did not get it right in this instance, hence the rap on the knuckles! No wonder they are all caught in their own web of selective daily spin on news.
The events of last Friday could have been treated impartially by seeking the views of persons from the two localities and the government spokesman to enlighten public opinion. Such an objective approach to news would enhance the standing and credibility of the MBC to its erstwhile repute. When will our national TV become a truly independent and trusted media voice in the country? Our democracy would, as a result, become so much more vibrant.
The Police force top brass also seems to have suffered collateral casualties in the wake of last Friday’s incidents and a hostile meeting with the inhabitants of Residence Barkly this week resulting in the ignominious exit of the Deputy Prime Minister and government ministers from the venue. Is the government trying to spread its tentacular control over everything, as in a banana republic? This is in the teeth of our democratic ethos and values and can only backfire.
Transparency and accountability
It is imperative that such an important and costly project in the country as the Metro is implemented judiciously with utmost transparency and accountability. Shrouding the key elements and phases of the project will only be counterproductive and undermine its smooth implementation. The incidents of last Friday have exposed the pitfalls related to a lack of public transparency in the procedures and process of compulsory land acquisition, which is just one aspect of a very complex project.
It would be daft to allow such an important national project for the modernization of the country which is largely endorsed by people to be sapped and plagued by unnecessary controversies through lack of adequate transparency and a policy of openness. It is therefore vital for the success of the project that full transparency and accountability prevail at all times through regular progress reporting on the project. The people have a right to know and to be regularly apprised of progress.
The conceptualization of the Metro project must also match current flows of commuters. This begs the question of why the track of the Metro follows basically the Port Louis- Curepipe train route used in the 1950s. Is this track an ideal fit of the present residential location and flow of commuters in the Curepipe-Port-Louis corridor which now also includes commuters to the Ebene Cyber City and the University? Let’s first make sure that the model matches the present pattern of commuter flows and ideally includes the Cyber City and the University through a short track connected to the main metro line. It must also be conceived to ensure the mass and rapid transit of daily commuters through the use of non-stop trains plying between major towns and Port Louis and vice-versa to speed up transit time.
In many respects, last Friday’s ruckus is an eye opener for government and the people on the many shortcomings which plumb our democracy and our performance as a country. These have to be aptly addressed and fixed forthwith. Lessons have also to be learnt. The people are fiercely protective of their democratic rights and values earned through arduous struggle. A culture of overbearing control or a policy of overindulgence towards licence of every kind in the teeth of laws and rules of good governance can only cause legitimate furore from the multitude.
- Published in print edition on 8 September 2017