The Budget of 2016 – 2017: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. A perspective from the green end of things.

 

 

 

The yearly ritual of the presentation of Government’s budget is an important exercise that deserves close scrutiny from citizens. Each and every person will have his or her own understanding and perception of this exercise. There is value, in a democratic society, for all of us to share our perceptions on the matter as in so doing we contribute, in a small way, to the welfare of the Republic.

 

Currently global GDP growth is hovering around 3% and it is the avowed aim of this Government to go beyond that figure. We tend to believe that due to many global constraints; much higher growth rates in a fairly mature economy like ours might be a bridge too far. It might be more sensible to base projections of future incomes on more reasonable growth targets of less than 3.5% so that we brace ourselves for an uncertain world situation.

 

Indeed the dynamics underway leading to global constraints relate to the ongoing climatic changes that most probably are beginning to have economic impacts worldwide. We ought not to forget energy dynamics even though oil prices are currently low. At any moment they can swing right back to high levels and impact our economy. The world financial system is still based on massive speculation and probably just as fragile as ever. The world food supply is still on the edge and finally, humans worldwide are still overdrawing excessively on the renewable resources of the planet.

 

Nevertheless, let us turn our attention to the good:

 

A Pharmaceutical Village in Rose Belle, measures to boost dairy production and bee keeping are all excellent and we wish Government well in those projects. Similarly the 15 percent levy on specific pesticides, herbicides and fruit ripeners is all good for the country, its people and environment.

 

Energy: We have been pleasantly surprised by the plethora of measures Government intends to introduce to boost the generation of electricity from renewable energies and to upgrade the grid. The proposal to open up ownership of renewable energy plants to small shareholders is very commendable. We shall eagerly follow developments in that respect.

 

Artisanal Fisheries: The measures proposed for that sector are also very encouraging given that for too many years mainly lip-service was paid to that activity. For an oceanic republic, neglect of artisanal fisheries is simply incomprehensible and truly regrettable. It is a wrong that we hope will now be redressed.

 

Culture: An aquarium and a national museum. Very commendable measures, however we believe that the country also needs a world history museum that will expose the Mauritian public to wonders of past civilizations from five continents. We are confident that many friendly countries would be more than willing to help us out in that respect.

 

Transport: Given that the Light Railway Transport system has been abandoned in favour of the so-called “Metro Express”, Government needs to publish very quickly details of the aforesaid project. We need to know what the Metro Express really means. We invite Government to make public all studies that will relate to it so that the country can make its voice heard on the matter. We need to know what routes it will take, especially in view of the avowed policy of setting up smart cities scattered all over the country, what tracks it will require, the energy requirements and how the existing rickety public transport will be made to work with the Metro Express.

Furthermore, we tend to believe that Government should consider the transport of heavy goods with this system, if feasible. This policy of openness is, in our understanding, critical for the success of the Metro Express. Consultants from abroad and Government technicians should not be left on their own devices on this project, given its scale. The population ought to be on board at all stages as they shall be paying for it in full. We await further communication from Government in this matter at the soonest.

 

Water: At long last and hopefully something tangible will be done concerning the recurrent water supply problem. For decades, 40% to 50% of water pumped has been lost by the antiquated system of the CWA. It is a national disgrace that successive Governments have repeatedly failed the population in that respect.

 

Housing: The proposed measures are interesting, yet we believe they could be enhanced a little bit. The typical Mauritian family comprises of 3 to 4 persons now. To house such a typical family, a 100 square meters housing unit built on a 400 square meters plot of land ought to be a decent average. It will allow each family the possibility of (1) having a decent garden for kids to play in, avoiding them to roam the streets and (2) having a vegetable garden with a compost bin. With a little effort, each housing unit could be fitted with rainwater collection systems and a solar water heater. It is easily forgotten by most that sustainability begins at home and especially in the kitchen. Such a housing unit would be a significant step towards sustainability for our society. In consequence we invite Government to stop all NHDC apartment building in favour of decent sized houses with a garden on a 400 square metres plot of land.

 

The Bad

 

Aquaculture: We are not too sure that such a massive expansion of aquaculture is good for the country. Before embarking in such an undertaking, would it not be more judicious to make an environmental, social and financial audit of the fish farms already operating in Mauritius? Should the Mauritius Oceanography Institute not be involved in such an audit beforehand?

 

Heritage City: This is all bad! We do not see the point in transferring Parliament (especially given that half of the time Parliament is not open for business) and other Government offices out of Port Louis to this white elephant named Heritage city. The whole project is far too grandiose for a small country like ours, for we would end up having two capital cities! Thankfully, it appears that since the budget speech this project has been torpedoed and is sinking fast!

 

Instead, as clearly said in the budget speech, Port Louis should be rejuvenated and many of its wonderful old buildings rehabilitated. Port Louis is a very interesting city, with its old cobbled pavements, colonial houses, antiquated warehouses, canals and docks. It is beautifully surrounded by majestic mountains and forests, old citadels stand guard, grand mosques, temples and cathedrals grace the city, sleepy museums await their visitors. Indeed, we already have our Heritage City and it is called Port Louis, let us make it even better for all! We do not need a new one in the Highlands. On the other hand, let us transform the green and fertile lands high up into pastures and farms to feed our country with wholesome food. Let us call Port Louis our Heritage City and Highlands our Heritage Farms. Far better it is for us all.

 

The Ugly:

 

The proposed setting up of a near shore mobile oil refinery is truly the ugly side of this budget. We recently have witnessed the grounding of the cargo ship Benita and the difficulties the authorities had in dealing with a minor oil spill, now imagine a real oil spill involving thousands of barrels of crude oil washing ashore of Flic-en-Flac following a near shore sinking of an oil tanker. The situation would be uncontrollable, leaving miles of beaches spoilt for months at least, a devastated ecosystem, possible major health impacts on local residents, collapsed fisheries, and a tourism industry that would keel over in short order. It is truly surprising that any Government would be ready and willing to take such a major risk with the livelihood of its citizenry. We call upon Government to graciously back off from such an endeavour.

 

Government has announced that it will facilitate the production of energy from bio-mass, inclusive of cane tops and trash. This is another ugly move by Government. We do not believe that the burning of cane tops is a good idea as it removes organic matter from the soil. The depletion of organic matter from soils reduces the fertility of the land. This cannot be a smart move. Furthermore, the burning of trash is another way of re-introducing waste to energy projects in Mauritius. What we need instead is a commitment by Government to encourage waste reduction, reuse and recycling of materials. It will diminish the materials resources the country requires and create employment in recycling activities. We must not forget that waste to energy facilities generate considerable amounts of toxic ashes that still need to be disposed of in landfills. We cannot commend Government on its intent to re-introduce a waste to energy project.

 

The silent agreement principles together with the regulatory sandbox licenses are both potentially ugly moves that could open the door to abuses by promoters always interested in cutting corners to make a fast buck. We believe that responsibility lies with Government to regulate activities in a diligent and professional manner with the public interest at heart and not to govern by default as the sandbox licenses seem to imply. After all, civil servants and politicians in power are paid to work for the public interest.

 

In conclusion we find interesting aspects to this budget that could turn out to initiate major changes in our country, whether it concerns transport, renewable energies, housing, culture or urbanization. The onus is now on Government (1) to explain to the nation, in details its intentions (2) to listen to what the public has to say on the matter, (3) not to get carried away in grandiose projects that will benefit no-one.

 

Karim Jaufeerally

 

Institute for Environmental Studies