Budget 2017-2018 and a nation at risk

The Budget. It is an annual exercise with a lot of hype and excitement, amidst expectations and a media frenzy. It is also a serious exercise for the government of the day, which maps out its plans for the economic development of the country and how it plans to “fix” our institutions. The Budget is more than just a thick document with a lot of figures and jargons that many cannot make sense of. Last week, the Budget was presented and delivered by the Minister of Finance. For a week, the experts and the gurus, along with politicians of all colours, have been interpreting what was presented. I am not going to do this. Instead, I want to discuss the state of the country and how the Budget proposes to remedy the symptoms and the illnesses.
Inside paradise island, it may not be paradise any more. A beautiful island with breath-taking sceneries, the reality is somewhat sombre. A nation with around 1.3 million inhabitants, the landscape has changed dramatically since independence in 1968. As plans are being made to celebrate fifty years of independence, a population is trying to come to terms with the current situation. A social malaise is sweeping this island state, in sum, Mauritius is a society at risk.
Let us briefly examine the health of modern Mauritius. Here is a snapshot.
Health
The situation is alarming. An island with plenty of seafood, fresh vegetables, sandy beaches and a warm tropical weather, the population is facing severe challenges to stay healthy. The prevalence of diabetes is a concern. The figures are alarming: 22.8% in 2015, suffering from diabetes, and over 350,000 people either obese or overweight. Health problems have been aggravated with increased alcohol consumption in Mauritius. Mental health is also on the rise, with increases in depression. For a population of 1.3 million, over 300,000 people have serious health risks. The largest cause of death is in fact related to cardiovascular diseases. The health of Mauritians does not look very good. From diabetes to heart problems and various forms of cancer, one would assume that health remains a priority for any government.
Poverty
Over 300,000 households are poverty-stricken. The average monthly income in many households is around Rs 13,000, which indicates that more than 9% of Mauritian families are living in poverty and deprivation. While some centres in the country are shown as examples of economic affluence, the deprived areas are neglected. Social and economic inequalities have increased the gap between the wealthy and the poor.  Children going to school without adequate breakfast and the lack of a nutritious meal are an example of how some communities live. The poor, like in many countries, does not have a voice. Their plight is not a priority.
The Budget has dropped the price of bread, flour and cooking oil, so as to bring some relief to the average Mauritian family. This “feel good factor” will not get Mauritians out of poverty, nor will the proposed nominal allowance of Rs 1000 for a combined monthly household income of Rs 10,000. One should not forget the inflation rate at 5.9%. The average consumer experiences regular price increases in basic household goods. So reducing the price of bread by a few rupees, does not relieve the average family of the challenges of making ends meet. The burden is too heavy.
There are pockets of underdevelopment areas across the country. People need a decent wage, a decent job and children need access to a decent education that will remove families out of the poverty trap. A band-aid solution does not help.
Many children are not getting a proper education. The drop-out rate is too high for a country like Mauritius. The nation cannot afford to lose such a big pool of potential talent. The Budget has made allocation to education, but how does the government propose to eliminate drop-outs? A strategy has yet to be in place. I draw attention to those planning to introduce a polytechnic type of education to be on guard and get the right advice and model. Polytechnic education is desirable if it is planned properly and complements the other sectors. There is a problem of capacity and skills in the country.
Unemployment
The rate of unemployment is around 8%, but with youth unemployment at 25%, the situation does not call for celebration. Many promises were made in the last budget and announcements were made that thousands of jobs would be created. The reality is that many are still struggling to find decent meaningful jobs. There is frustration among the youth. Those graduating are unable to find a meaningful job. Youth unemployment is a rising concern. The Budget does not specify how youth unemployment will be tackled and eventually eliminated. How many jobs were created last year? What happened to the SMEs which were going to create jobs and spearhead economic growth? It was one of the highlights of last year’s Budget.
Crime, justice and violence
Here is another area that is causing a lot of concern. How is the justice system responding? Is policing adequate? More importantly, what is being done to prevent crime in the society? Then, the recent reports of drug and drug trafficking.
The Budget proposes to support new technologies to combat crime and drug trafficking. Providing new technologies and sophisticated policing are only part of a solution to eliminate this problem. The victims of addiction require rehabilitation and better treatment facilities. According to some circles, Mauritius is becoming a centre for drug trafficking and distribution. This puts the nation at risk. Measures have to be in place to change this image of the country. The Budget should have gone further and tackle the root causes of drug addiction, with specific projects.
How is the Budget responding to the social ills that are plaguing the country?
There are many proposals and projections. I want to be specific and if we take sector by sector, the Budget falls short. For example, beginning with health. The concerns outlined should put the health of Mauritians as a priority. There is little in the Budget to combat the issues raised. There is an urgent need for a public education campaign on health, healthy living and nutrition. Community centres exist but not effective in educating the public. Health education in schools has to be in a wider context. There is a shortage of health practitioners. A huge allocation (Rs 11.6 billion) has been to the health sector, but does not specify how it will be disbursed.
A major concern is road safety and the number of deaths caused by accidents. The Budget should provide support to make roads safer, improve driver education, and efficient policing. The poor state of roads across the country has made driving unsafe. The allocation (Rs 4.9 billion) will not reduce accidents on the roads. Very often resources disappear before a project is completed or due to lack of planning and supervision, infrastructure falls apart.
The Budget has announced the hiring of 250 new teachers. It is not merely about hiring, the question is do we have quality teachers and are teachers being trained properly? The Nine-Year Schooling requires a lot of planning and resources. Aside from a shortage of teachers, there are other shortages such as qualified counsellors, technicians and support staff. The infrastructure in many schools requires immediate upgrading. There are still rural/urban disparities.
Another major concern is the protection of the environment and the eco-system. From coastal erosion to depletion of forests, the eco-system is becoming fragile. In the name of economic development, the Mauritian landscape is threatened. The Budget made references to cleaning up a few beaches and investing in green energy. The specifics are not clearly spelt out. The environment therefore is low on the priority list.
Mauritius is becoming a nation of debt. A mounting national debt will turn into a national crisis. There is no remedy or measures in the Budget to curb the national debt. A debt-servicing plan is urgently required. This has huge implications for economic growth and development. The Budget calls on investors, but a country with debt poses a risk for investors.
The new Budget has attracted a lot of attention and it should. The country’s future is at stake and whatever decision is made, the impact cannot be undermined. The nation is at risk. Long-term planning is urgently needed at all levels; the Budget cannot be about patchwork solutions. I would urge a national debate on the state of the nation and the risks the country is facing. Stakeholders should form part a national platform that genuinely examines where Mauritius is heading. At this juncture, we should abandon fancy models of development, but focus on how to put the country on the right track.