A perversion of democracy
For as long as Eric Guimbeau was just being Eric Guimbeau,
harmless and irrelevant, there was no problem. For as long as he
joined the well-meaning ‘agwas’ (matchmakers) of this country, it is
still fair game. After all, making and breaking alliances has become
our national sport. But when he ventures into a profound analysis and tries
to depict the MSM as a victim having led the Labour Party to power and is
now suffering one undeserved humiliation after another, we would like to
suggest that he learns to weigh his words.
The leader of the opposition is not one not to grab an opportunity, any
opportunity, to try and get back into power. And this is as good an opportunity
as any. He, therefore, wakes up the next morning with several realizations
First, that there is no problem with a minister of Finance signing a
Rs. 145m cheque to himself and his family in exchange for a dilapidated
clinic resuscitated from oblivion. The minister even becomes an icon of integrity
because he declared his interest by walking out of the meeting, in the
same way the guy the other day declared his interest by walking out of an
interview panel saying, “I must leave now because the next candidate is my
son. And he is a bloody good candidate.” We still do not know to which part
of Paul Bérenger’s memory this information had been relegated but Eric
Guimbeau’s statement did indeed help retrieve it.
Second, Cousin Maya is fi ne too, thank you. The “dear Pravind”
letter provided by the same leader of the opposition seems to have
vanished in the same way it appeared. So have all the allegations of
crookery and malpractice. As the MMM discovers a new MSM which
shares the same sense of ethics as them, parliamentary questions are
cast aside to avoid them any embarrassment. Let the outdated medical
equipment be used for the elderly. Who cares?
But beyond seeing ethics trampled upon, beyond the intellectual
paucity that has become so apparent, what saddens me in this whole
episode is that the MMM, by cosying up to the MSM, has pushed the
Labour Party on the back foot and the latter may feel obliged to protect
its ally for the sake of safeguarding its own interests. In the meantime, Rs.
145m of the taxpayers’ hard earned money, dug out of the threadbare
pockets of each and everyone of us, will have gone in the wrong pockets
without the culprits ever even having to thank us for the opportunity we
gave them to swindle us.
In this crooked exercise of outbidding, we understand how the 5 cents
ironically gets to outweigh the 95 cents. In this endeavour of upping the
ante, we understand the surprising generosity of the Labour Party towards
the MSM in the last General Elections which had, until now, remained an
enigma. What is outrageous is that we are fed exactly the same bogus arguments
about integrity, ethics, the interests of the tax-payers, etc. etc. and every
time we are taken for a ride as our politicians only look at their own interests
and nothing else. But we should be grateful for the naive grace which drives
us to forgive, forget and have the idiocy to believe them again.
“Every true genius is bound to be naïve,” Friedrich Schiller said. If you still
believe that the ‘loyal’ opposition has any intention of upholding your interests
by holding government to account, you must be a great genius indeed.
The ins and outs of prison
No, the splendid bouquet in the stylish vase embellishing the
Commissioner of Prisons’ offi ce was not made in-house. The
Commissioner volunteered the information to a question we
did not openly ask. He obviously sensed that the compliment
we offered as we walked into his offi ce was perhaps not innocent. Not that
the Commissioner is not a fi erce advocate of rehabilitation and preparing
the inmates to integrate the community and stay away from prison. So why
85% of prisoners are almost doomed to go back?
From the outside, things look very simple, as they usually do in theory:
you teach inmates a skill, they practice it in prison, you provide counseling
and when they come out of jail, they become useful members of society.
Once inside, however, you come face to face with a harsh reality: most of
the offenders end up in jail for drug-related problems. Drugs keep fl owing
in perhaps more freely than outside and everyone knows how diffi cult it is
to be weaned off drugs in a place where supply is plentiful. Where there are
huge amounts of money involved, there is temptation as well as fear, and
morality fl ies out the window.
The problems are compounded by the lack of space and resources.
The prisoners are, therefore, put together almost irrespective of the type
of crime they have committed. Some fi nd themselves in custody for the
wrong reasons. Once they have left the “crime university” and have been
hooked on drugs, they are fully qualifi ed to come again, this time for the
right reasons. The problem the prison authorities have to juggle is a choice
between security and rehabilitation. Let’s remember in all fairness how
hard we came down on them when there was a jailbreak. And, for any rehabilitation,
you need to be able to trust the inmates with the appropriate
tools to be used in any skill they may be taught. Considering the limited
resources, to what extent can drug users and traffi ckers be trusted with
potentially dangerous tools?
Also, if drugs are our major problem, the fi ght against crime cannot
be won in prison alone. It has to be fought on all fronts by all of us. There
are drug addicts on our streets trying to support a Rs. 250-a-day habit
through mugging, burglary, stealing or some more violent crime. There are
unscrupulous and ruthless pushers in the vicinity of some school campuses
trying to hook our children on drugs. We cannot fi ght the problem simply
by putting everyone in jail at the cost of Rs 700 a prisoner a day! We either
give up on our streets, our children and our peace, or we make the fi ght
ours and reclaim our neighbourhoods, schools and families.
First, we have to push for the Asset Recovery Act to be promulgated as
soon as possible! What exactly are we waiting for? Depriving criminals of
their ill-gotten money is a major step in the fi ght. But we, as a community,
also need to do our homework and look for models that have worked in
other countries. The “good” thing is that we are not the fi rst country to
confront this problem. The bad news is that while citizens in other countries
have taken up the fi ght through community-based programmes, we are
spending an inordinate amount of energy trying to legislate people’s sexual
behaviour and making sure that the state has a way into citizens’ bedrooms
and a say in the way they derive sexual satisfaction. It is time we got our
priorities right and decided on the kind of society we want to live in!
Tilting at windmills
When it comes to education these days, there is really so little to
laugh about. The disproportionate amount of question time
devoted to…absenteeism in schools at the Legislative Assembly
last Tuesday defi es all rhyme and reason. Watching back
benchers and members of the opposition taking turns to grill the minister
of education about what he intends to do, in the here and now, about this
phenomenon makes one wonder whether we know where our priorities are.
The question has captured the public spotlight recently as if this phenomenon
were something new or even marginally signifi cant. The real issues,
as a result, got buried underneath this obsessive pursuit to raise the number
of days students sit in the classrooms as if that were an indicator of improvement
of the education system! And, every time we focus on side issues, the
real problems plaguing the education system go unnoticed.
We still have a system which throws a third of its population out
before kids even learn how to read and write. Some never do. A system
based on open inequality and unfairness where many parents unwittingly
show their children how to cheat and lie by falsifying their addresses and
securing unfair advantages. We still live in a country where a Standard 1
pupil is raped by three boys hardly older than her in the school premises
and where indiscipline is almost getting out of hand. All these issues are
sidetracked and our parliamentarians are taking the minister of education
to task about a few students who absent themselves from school in the
third term for revision purposes!
One might perhaps benefi t by going back to a debate about the basics:
the aim of education in this day and age. Beyond sitting in the classrooms,
the students’ task is to cultivate a capacity to think outside the box and be
able to handle real-life situations, rapidly adapt and move in sync with the
times. Our policy makers should try and promote policies to help ensure that
our children receive a cutting-edge education, benchmarked against world
standards allowing them to compete globally.
As President Barak Obama aptly said, “In a 21st-century world where
jobs can be shipped wherever there’s an Internet connection,…a child born
in Dallas is now competing with a child in New Delhi.” I wonder how many
classes the kid in Delhi has attended and how many parliamentarians and
rectors are recommending “strong legislation to force” him to attend.
I think the priorities for the minister of education are not to go the route
of repressive legislation. After all, as one of the students said in our June 17th
edition, “You could be sitting in a classroom but not following the class.” Rather,
he should concentrate on improving the quality of public education and
reducing the gap between the high-performing and low-performing schools.
He should introduce measures to engage and motivate today’s students rather
than force them to merely physically attend. One of the ways of doing
this is by hiring, training and retaining high-quality teachers and introducing
activities which make the school experience a happy one. This is the only
way to ensure that every young person has the skills and qualifi cations to
contribute to their future and that of their country.
If parliamentarians want to help improve the system, they should
concentrate on real issues instead of echoing the panic of some rectors
who concede that the phenomenon “does not generally have an effect
on the students’ performance.”