The present government has had the courage to take an action against ‘street hawkers’ in Port Louis which none of its predecessors has had the courage to undertake.
The government decided that it was time for the street hawkers to clear off the footpaths and streets of central Port Louis, thus complying with a judgement given several years ago by the Supreme Court to this effect. The Lord Mayor of Port Louis Oumar Kholeegan and Minister Anwar Husnoo have stood firm, providing alternative non-public-encumbering spots for the hawkers to operate from. Hawkers are unhappy since they prefer to sell their wares from places more frequented by pedestrians. Others would have yielded, as it happened in the past, to the political pressure exerted by the association of ‘street hawkers’. The Municipality and the government decided however that the problem would only go on aggravating – as it has been the experience so far – if they bet on the political dividend to be gained by tolerating the abuse.
That all of the preceding governments have not demonstrated courage enough to deal with this problem goes to the credit of the present one that it has been bold enough to call a spade a spade in this matter. In fact, some parochial opposition politicians took sides laterally with the ‘street hawkers’ blaming the authorities for abiding by the decision of the Supreme Court on flimsy other grounds that the hawkers should have been given better alternatives than the ones provided or, worse still, be given jobs in the public sector to compensate them for the loss of their preferred pas-de-portes from which to do business at the expense of duly licensed rate-paying traders of the capital and of the smooth flow of vehicles and pedestrians along the streets of the capital.
Taking a look at the bigger picture surrounding this long-outstanding struggle between the authorities, on the one hand, to have the law respected and the ‘street hawkers’, on the other, seeking to entrench themselves despite the law ever more firmly on the public space no matter the pandemonium their trade causes to the public at large, other issues bristle up.
The ‘street hawkers’ have always claimed that this is their means of earning a livelihood. They should therefore be allowed to ply their trade in their places of choice in the City, no matter the inconvenience it inflicts on all others. Conveniently, they’ve grouped together under an association in order to lobby government after government to be allowed to bypass the law. With the years, their numbers have increased, not decreased. Trespassing the public domain has therefore increased alongside. In the festive period, their numbers multiply even more. It is rumoured that not all of them are petty traders eking out a living by this means, that they may be importers of goods in fact or setting up shop on the streets at the behest of trading houses which pass incognito. They claim, laws should not apply to them. The public would be entitled then to ask: why should this kind of laissez-faire not apply to us all and we could then also flout laws as it would suit our convenience?
All economic activities are regulated by laws in Mauritius. In this specific case, this kind of regulation, it is claimed, should not apply. No licences to be paid, no rent to be paid for occupying places meant for the public and pedestrians, no place of business to be officially authorized, no public hazard issue caused by invading footpaths to be considered. Briefly, the hypothesis is that it should be free for all to organize themselves as best suits their convenience.
One just has to stretch the argument a bit further to see why it is untenable. Like the street hawkers, there are numerous other members of society seeking to eke out a livelihood by engaging in diverse economic activities. There are other small earners: craftsmen, fishermen and women, vegetable growers, sellers of flower pots and plants, small family enterprises and the sort engaging in several types of minor activities ranging from food catering to renting of tents for special occasions. Many of these have their own duly authorised small shops from which to conduct business all over the island when it comes to selling their wares. Or, if they don’t, they take part in regular “fairs” on fixed days in municipal, district or village council areas dedicated for the purpose to sell their products.
Thus, these diverse undertakers of economic activity are made to operate within fixed perimeters and not off-boundaries or in places of their own choice. Local authorities open the fairs for different kinds of trade – vegetables, linen, domestic wares – on different days of the week. These people also earn a living on the borderline but they comply with the law.
It is the role of the government to support these more or less self-employed persons engaging in economic activity at lower scales. Producers of vegetables and flowers not only compete among themselves; they are increasingly faced in competition against large-scale producers (some of them former sugar estates) supplying the public directly in local council fairs and to steady substantial sources of demand, such as hotels to which the smaller producers have no access really.
The government could have helped such local producers to face the market from a position of strength, irrespective of the “communities” they belong to or the “vote-banks” they have influence upon. It has to empower them. Governments also don’t subsidize the mechanical tilling and preparing of their lands, looking after seed production of the small non-sugar farms, grouping them into more efficient larger units, protecting them against pests effectively, etc., as the Farmers’ Service Centres do for sugar cane planters. The smaller horticultural/vegetable planters/craftsmen and women fend for themselves with barely any official support and are expected not to transgress any laws, which is how it should be for all in a rule-of-law country.
The decision to put order in the growing chaos Port Louis has been becoming singles out the present government from all the rest. It required commitment and courage to travel in this direction. People who count really are full of praise for the Minister and the Lord Mayor who stood by their decision to at last put some order in a situation that was getting increasingly out of hands. If it continued to take real life- improving decisions to pull up the lot of all at the bottom of the economic ladder, unmindful of realpolitik considerations, the government might overcome the handicaps it has accumulated upon itself by undoing the economy, concentrating on political rivalries, making questionable appointments to public offices and indulging continuously in internal bickerings.
The media has its own agenda. It has been fixing itself upon the government’s next replacement as soon as the present one started accumulating blunders for failing to bring its unmannerly bulls out of the china shop on time. Citizens have no interest in this kind of power game. In fact, the potential political alternatives have shown that they are prepared to carry on with the same sub-culture of yesterday. We’ll be back to square one unless decision-making is made firm, corruption-free and decisive to foster undiscriminating growth and development for all in an orderly manner. It might not be too late for the government to regain focus, do the repairs, change tack and bring back the confidence in the country which its main protagonists would otherwise keep undermining to the detriment of the country’s advancement.
* Published in print edition on 6 May 2016