The NIMBY Syndrome

It is those with money and who are adept at lobbying or whose voices are heard more loudly that get policy decisions that suit their interests

It would have been so much more ethically proper – and politically rewarding for Pravind Jugnauth himself — if the former Vice Prime Minister had been shown the red card after the video recording containing the offensive language Hon Soodhun would have used against a section of the Mauritian community in relation to NHDC housing had been brought to his attention. Though there might have been reasons unknown to the public for the PM’s hesitancy to take necessary action against the former minister other than his professed legalism in the matter, this has clearly been a missed opportunity for Pravind Jugnauth to demonstrate that his authority as Prime Minister suffers from no contestation from any quarters within his government and his party and that he has absolute control on events and on his troupe.

Viewed from another angle, the government decision to put up a social housing project in Bassin through its executive arm – the National Housing Development Company Limited (NHDC Ltd) – has again highlighted the risks of conflicts that are bound to arise in the absence of open public consultation when such and other public infrastructural projects are forced through, especially when they are perceived to go against the interests of the concerned stakeholders or likely to disturb the peace and quiet of the inhabitants. Sustainable development advocates in favour of public participation in the full decision making process prior to the implementation of such projects, so that the public’s concerns may be met early on in the planning process when changes may be easier to make, rather than late in the process when even small changes may cost both time and money – as the tussles with respect to the Metro Express had demonstrated a few months ago. Although conflicts cannot always be avoided, they are made explicit in the public participation process, making conflict handling more efficient.

The question that arises with regard to the Bassin NHDC project is whether any form of stakeholder involvement was contemplated at the initial stage. It has been reported in the press that the residents of the Bassin morcellement situated near the NHDC site had earlier made representations to the government against the location of such a project in the area. It would also appear that another infrastructural project had been initially earmarked for the area, and this is what the eventual residents in the morcellement knew would be in the pipeline and bought for, not what has instead been forced upon them subsequently for reasons that remain unknown.

The second point regarding this matter is that the representations of the Bassin inhabitants had been castigated in the press for their opposition to a “cité” in their locality. We are not aware if such self-righteous indignation had been expressed by those same press commentators about the opposition of residents of Albion against the CT Power project and the Petroleum Hub project in the same area. The opposition to the NHDC project at Bassin and Albion Petroleum Hub may well have been inspired by legitimate and reasonable concerns – the former in view of the disturbance of the peace and quiet of the area, and the latter for reasons of possible environmental risks and expected negative incidence on land prices around the CT Power and the Petroleum Hub projects for small, large and corporate landholders including sugar estates.

But it also introduces into the debate the NIMBY, or “not in my backyard” syndrome, which at times may be an appropriate response to inappropriate development, or development that has been undertaken without adequate community engagement. But it can also be ‘a pejorative characterization of opposition by residents to a proposal for a new development because it is close to them (or, in some cases, because the development involves controversial or potentially dangerous technology) – often with the connotation that such residents believe that the developments are needed in society but should be further away’ from them.

This brings us to the recurring problem of land use and planning decisions to cater for housing, energy, waste management, public transport needs, etc., the mishandling of which could lead to social unrest, as has been shown with the Bassin episode and earlier at La Butte and Barkly. Most Mauritians would not be aware of how our respective governments have gone about deciding on the location of social housing projects and energy production facilities in different parts of the country. How they decide, for example, to locate a “cité” in Roche Bois or Bassin or Cité La Cure – not in La Mivoie, or an energy production unit or a “centre d’enfouissement des déchets” (landfill site) in Mare Chicose or La Chaumière, not in Albion or near an IRS complex or a gated morcellement?

Town and Country planning is a vital government function. Unfortunately, governments in Mauritius do not appear to have taken this seriously though there have been attempts to establish national physical development strategies in the past. From MATIM (Mission d’aménagement du Territoire de l’Ile Maurice) in 1977 to the last National Development Strategy in 2005, there have been a series of master plans that have been developed but which have never been really implemented. According to Dr Vasantt Jogoo, consultant in sustainable development and former chairman of the Maurice Ile Durable Fund Committee, although some of the master plans provisions have been translated into the local authority’s “Outline Schemes” there are a number of mechanisms that exist (devised by the government) to bypass statutory provisions of outline schemes.

The main reason we don’t see much planning, and much support from Government, he adds, is because of vested interests. ‘The Business-Industry-Land Developer lobby is the one that wants to direct where development is to take place. It decides where it wants to set up shop, irrespective of the environmental quality of the land or the likely impacts it can produce. The government is merely a facilitator and in many cases even invests heavily in infrastructure to service those areas that have been developed at the behest of the private sector. What we need is a planning system that is flexible enough to accommodate changing conditions and, at the same time, a government that has the political will to dictate where development should take place for the greater good of the community and the environment.’

Is it any wonder that it is those with money and are adept at lobbying or whose voices are heard more loudly in the media – mostly of the NIMBYs — that get policy decisions that suit their interests – at times contrary to the public interest? Successive governments keep citing the Singapore model – but don’t apply any lessons from there. Government policy there has been to provide affordable housing to its population, and to ensure that in all housing projects there is no ghettoising of the people. In other words, there has to be a balanced mix of ethnicities so that harmony prevails in the country. This can only happen when there is a planning at central level driven by principles rather than being subjected to the pressures of powerful development lobbies. Unless this is done, such protests as we are seeing may become even more frequent and at our own peril.

 

*  Published in print edition on 17 November 2017

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