We can never reiterate enough the axiomatic need to abide by the rule of law by all its citizens when it comes to a country’s national interest and its international image, on which depends its development prospects and the future of its people. And by citizens we also mean members of the Judiciary, the Legislature and the Executive, since they are called to the highest ethical standards, and demonstrably so at all times, by virtue of their being the guardians of the security and integrity of the country.
Last Friday the country sat on a powder keg. All the elements were neatly – and conveniently – aligned for the concoction of an explosive cocktail during the pulling down operations of constructions and other dwellings which are situated on the tracks on which the Metro Express is expected to run. They included: political demagogy, a sprinkling of veiled communal and religious sentiments to exacerbate passions, the authorities’ perceived indifference and inhuman regard for citizens’ basic needs – a roof over their heads, which is a highly emotive issue, especially for the less privileged members of society. There was also a perception of communication failure – reactive as always and after the event – to set the record right as to the procedures and consultations apparently duly followed and undertaken with the concerned parties to vacate the premises for the implementation of the Metro Express project.
Not the least of the issues was the continuing problem of illegal occupation – i.e. squatting – of State lands and on public roads. It cannot be gainsaid that this has been exacerbated by the laisser-aller of successive governments for reasons of political clientelism at the expense of the public interest. It is the peace and the quiet of the country that were disturbed, leading to traffic paralysis in and around Port Louis. The hassles encountered by thousands of private and public passenger vehicles exiting Port Louis were a painful reminder of previous public disturbances which brought Port Louis to a standstill and caused long traffic jams…
The policy reversal with respect to the implementation of the Metro from its earlier strong opposition to the Labour-PMSD government’s Light Railway project has not helped the government either. Explanations for what may well be a justified policy reversal were called for, but these have been totally absent from the government’s PR. It is quite understandable that there should be no compulsion on any government to remain straightjacket in an earlier policy decision. However, any change thereof in the light of new circumstances should be explained, and the implementation of the project should be seen to observe the rules of transparency and be clear to all stakeholders. Sadly, that requirement has been lacking to this day.
On the other hand, while the anger of the protesters was understandable, this was no reason for the disturbance of public peace. Unfortunately, the presence of political agitators at La Butte might have exacerbated passions. But should we be surprised that the common man – those directly affected by the government’s decision to pull down illegal constructions – is tempted to resort to the kind of behaviour that was on display and expect to get away with it? After all, they can well justify their stand with reference to the example of a Minister who publicly threatened that he would have killed the leader of the Opposition if he had been provided with the service revolver of his bodyguard. Does this not amount to a breach of the law? To date the fellow seems to have got away with it, even having been allowed to travel overseas.
Nevertheless, post the incidents there are indications that the procedures would have been duly followed by the authorities. It also appears that most of the noises are coming from people who cannot legimately exercise a right on the premises on the basis of duly granted and valid leases. The situation can only be resolved by institutional means, within a defined legal framework. As suggested by the leader of Mouvement Patriotique, Alan Ganoo, the time has perhaps come for the government to revisit the Land Acquisition Act of 1973, and replace the Assessment Board – which meets occasionally — by a Permanent Tribunal which would meet regularly to thrash such matters as compulsory land acquisitions or the eviction of squatters on State lands by the Government before bulldozers step in. The legislation could include clauses from other jurisdictions as regards compensations due to those evicted and other related issues.
If there is one institution that seems to inspire confidence and trust among the population, it’s the judiciary. With such updated legislations in place, it can then function with efficiency and give its rulings in the tradition of independence that is its hallmark. And such rulings must be rigorously followed by those concerned if we want to be recognised as a true democratic state governed by the rule of law. If there is any departure from this, especially on the part of the executive (as in the case of hawkers where the ruling of the Supreme Court to keep a 500-meter free zone near the Central Market in Port-Louis was not carried out this can trigger anarchy, by inflamed citizens and political agitators on their side. At the end of the day, the onus is on both the Executive – to come clean, be forthcoming with transparent explanations – and the citizenry which must follow the rule of law. Only in this way can the current crisis be resolved, and any future one averted.
- Published in print edition on 8 September 2017