Touria Prayag's Blog

Who will speak for the poor?25 September 2013

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on March 22, 2014

Par Touria Prayag

If you don’t believe that the electoral campaign has started, just listen to the political talk around you: the government is blowing its own trumpet about the way it has revolutionised the country, what with the new roads, new airport and the new identity card. And the opposition has just discovered that we have poor people and fishermen in this country and that they badly need help. This realisation – which has hit Pravind Jugnauth in particular suddenly in the same way the apple fell on Isaac Newton’s head – has resulted in his suggestion that the poor need to have special subsidised shops to buy the basic necessities. Wow! Not to be left out of the race for the votes of the poor, Patrick Assirvaden hastened to enumerate the number of measures the government has undertaken to help the poor, like housing, discounts on electricity bills and special water rates.

All this is very well. Thank you on behalf of the poor. But between elections, the poor are barely an afterthought. You will have noticed that up until now, all the press conferences have been about the Remake denouncing ‘scandals’ and the Labour Party either refuting the allegations or unearthing old Remake ‘scandals’. And the entertainment provided every Saturday to any member of the press who was willing to take it was so predictable that we could almost write articles without even attending.

But now that the poor have been dragged into the campaign, perhaps it is time to engage in a more substantive debate about poverty. The poor by now know that campaign talk will not fi ll their stomachs. In fact, the reaction of many social workers in the area has shown that the poor are not dupes and that focusing on them to win votes will no longer cut it. The echoes from Richelieu for example are “we don’t want to be helped. We want to be empowered.”

Perhaps in their haste to win votes from the poor, some politicians – who have suddenly discovered poverty and its benefits to their vote pool – have failed to see that many of the underprivileged now want to have the dignity of having a job. So, any political party which intends to address poverty should know that there is only one way: pumping up the economy to create more jobs.

But to address the issue of poverty, a wider debate should start with the definition of the word ‘poor’. Many Mauritians who have spent the last penny their parents had saved on education are now being impoverished because they cannot find decent jobs. Whether we want to admit it or not, those who have no connections and are not of the right ilk can find jobs in neither government nor in the private sector. The whole system badly needs to open up. Those who’ve invested in education and cannot find decent graduate employment also deserve the politicians’ attention.

But of course, no one expects the campaign – whenever it takes place – to be more than the foretaste we have been given: false and unrealistic promises by the opposition and the government blowing its own trumpet, all this packaged in a shouting match on soap boxes, peppered with some nasty ethnic politics, innuendo laden bidding contests and allegations and counter-allegations of scandals. In the middle of this, no one will be interested in a real debate about the poor or the impoverished. Yet, there is still a big thirst for debate which remains unquenched.


Manufacturing panic 19 September 2013

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on March 22, 2014

Par Touria Prayag

The Tertiary Education Commission’s (TEC) decision not to issue a ruling regarding the universities at the centre of the last few weeks’ polemic is pathetic. The students enrolled at the universities in question are not sure what will happen to them after they graduate, the parents are anguishing over their children’s future and the money that’s been spent in pursuit of it, so much so that they now have a spokesman – guess who? – and the opposition misses no opportunity to try and gain political mileage by asking for the minister of tertiary education’s resignation. In the middle of this political game, the least one could have expected of the TEC was to provide answers to the questions of the anguished parents.

These questions are simple: in the pursuit of acquiring knowledge and skills, is my child worse off than any other student in the local tertiary sector? In other words, will the students studying at these universities find graduate employment if they seek a job at the end of their studies and will they be able to pursue their education here or abroad if they so wish? Without losing sight of the aim of education – but at the same time leaving aside the romanticised views of it which are so unobjectionable that they sound vacuous – students go to university and parents pay for their education so that they can be educated members of the workforce one day.

Like in every other situation, once an issue – any issue – has been politicised, it is very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. And this one has been politicised to tears and milked dry by the opposition. Add to that the ethnic politics in this country and the scores politicians like to settle at the expense of truth and fairness and you have the full picture. So, if anyone could provide facts, it is the TEC. Pity it has missed out on its chance.

The facts about the EIILM University and the JSS Academy are accessible to anyone who has time for a bit of research. In the cover story this week, Weekly did what the TEC could have done: look at the question from all sides and provide information on all the aspects relevant to the parents and the students. And the answer to the questions the parents must be asking is simple: as things stand, a student who graduates from these institutions – in spite of all the bad press around them – is no worse off than any other student currently studying or who has studied in any other tertiary education institution in Mauritius. They can gain graduate employment in the public or private sector and follow a postgraduate course in any foreign university These facts are drowned in a political saga we could do without.

There is no crisis at the moment. The trench war between the UGC and some Indian universities has little to do with us and the Saturday political talk is just that: political talk. However, if the TEC stays in its funk hole and keeps shirking its responsibilities, we may indeed end up with a crisis on our hands. There is an urgent need for it to sit with its counterpart – the UGC – and iron out this issue once and for all. Our students can then make informed choices and face their studies with serenity. If the bad press was harming only the minister of tertiary education, it would be de bonne guerre. It is, unfortunately, jeopardising the students’ chances of getting on in life. And that is rather unfair.

Putin, the statesman? 10 September 2013

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on March 22, 2014

Par Touria Prayag


None of the three men – Obama, Assad and Putin – who spent the whole week flexing their muscles as the world held its breath really wanted a military intervention in Syria. But they each thought they had something to get out of it. Barack Obama – like François Hollande and David Cameron whose initial zeal was put to an end by their own people – may have seen the intervention as an opportunity to acquire new stature on the global stage which would in turn help him at home. Bashar al-Assad would have been led to the role he had been longing to assume – that of a victim of the west – which would have earned him enormous regional support and Vladimir Putin would have been happy to strengthen his ties with Assad and supply the weapons he needs to fi ght the Americans.

That Barack Obama – on second thoughts – managed to hear the voice of reason is good news for the world. American military boots in Damascus would have sucked the region into a bloody conflict the rest of the world neither needs nor can afford. And there is no reason to suggest that the operation would have done anything to attenuate the deaths and inhumane suffering going on there right now. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The voice of reason – ironically – came from Vladimir Putin. And – who would have believed it – he is the one who came out of this whole episode smelling of roses. Both François Hollande and David Cameron were denied the support of their people and Barack Obama just about managed to avoid being discredited.

Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, emerged as a real statesman who kept stressing that “there is no alternative to a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria” and – though nothing concrete has been achieved yet – seems to have turned what the Americans thought of as unthinkable into something realistically achievable. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, expressed his pessimism that the only condition which could stop the American military intervention was for [Bashar al-Assad] to turn over “every bit of his [chemical] weapons to the international community within the next week,” sarcastically adding that Assad “isn’t about to”. No sooner had he said that than Vladimir Putin’s government announced negotiations were on to achieve just that and there was every reason to hope that they would come to a positive denouement. The rest is history.

And history does repeat itself. In many ways. The debate raging on now is eerily similar to the one which surrounded the disaster created in the Middle East region through a series of American-backed coups in Syria in 1947/1949 to depose President Shukri al-Quwatli in 1949, then again in 1963 to instal the Ba’athist Party in power in Syria. It can perhaps be summed up by a young political officer, a CIA agent named Deane Hinton, who had said: “I want to go on record as saying that this is the stupidest, most irresponsible action a diplomatic mission like ours could get itself involved in, and that we’ve started a series of these things that will never end.” The “Dark Ages” that Deane Hinton had warned that the American CIA had opened the door to in Syria back then were, regretfully, about to start again. Except that they would have been darker. Deane Hinton was – unfortunately – right, is still right and he would have been right again. Thank God the

Dark Ages were avoided in the nick of time. It is not sure how the Syria narrative will evolve but the world cannot afford the possible implications of a military intervention. Thank you, Deane!

What is left of the Arab Spring? 26 Août 2013

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on March 22, 2014

What is left of the Arab Spring?

Par Touria Prayag

Those who think that what is happening in Tahrir and Rabaa Square today has nothing to do with us must have a very short memory. They must have forgotten the events in Algeria some decades ago and the havoc wreaked on the world as a result. The timid reaction of the powerful political leaders will come back and bite us one day.

The message which is going out to the world today is that young Egyptians will have fought and been killed for no valid reason. The generals are back in charge and are terrorising the ‘terrorists’ in much the same way Mubarak terrorised his opponents for decades before the Arab Spring. And the Muslim Brotherhood – a party which was democratically elected to rule Egypt – has not only seen its president removed but also being totally excluded from politics. That has a cost and the whole world will spend decades paying for having closed its eyes to this mistake.

Granted, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi may have aggressively expanded his powers. He may have ignored secular voices. He may have sidled up to extremists. He may have behaved as if he had the support of the whole nation – when in fact he had been voted in by barely more than half of the electorate – and started gradually inserting Islamic bits into the constitution which were not conducive to the nation building Egyptians had been hoping for. He may have acted as if he would never face an election again. However, no matter how much one may disagree with his Islamist agenda, the world remembers a man who – for the fi rst time in the history or Egypt – walked into power through the ballot box and the will of the people. And that is something significant. Democracy, they say, is the worst form of government… except for all those other forms that have been tried. Egypt will learn this the hard way.

The bloody images coming out of Egypt these days are sad and saddening. They are a far cry from the peaceful demonstrations of the Arab Spring which the whole world had looked up to with admiration and which the Arab World equated with hope for better tomorrows for the Arab youth. Today, this revolution is in shambles and Egypt seems to be sliding into civil war. The economy is reeling. Mubarak – released from government custody – is looking on with hope and probably laughing inside. The goons who maintained him in power for decades are in charge again. The demonstrators are determined to wait it out and are not showing any intention of wanting to go back home. And it is not clear how Egypt will come out of this bloody cycle.

Those world leaders who have forgotten the Algerian experience will live to remember it and remind us of it. What is happening in Egypt today is no different. It is not a ”post-revolution transition”. It is a coup. And it will not end here. Now that the Muslim Brotherhood and similar movements know that they can never use the democratic route to get to power, they and their followers will resort to violence. And, considering the extent of poverty and frustration in Egypt, there will be no shortage of recruits. That’s when we will start paying for the indecisive reaction of the world leaders. We will then start picking up the pieces of what is left of the Arab Spring.

The uncomfortable economics of immigration 5 September 2013

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on March 22, 2014

Par Touria Prayag

The dilemma of immigrant workers is becoming a live question again with the violent events which have marked this week. Because we are talking about unskilled people at the bottom of the social ladder who have left everything behind and sought refuge in our country in the hope of better tomorrows, the issue is highly emotive. It is easier to talk about exploitation and bad living conditions than to attempt to rationalise the debate. Talking about the immigrants’ duty to their host country or the implications of their recent violent actions may seem mean-spirited. But it’s important to be intellectually honest, even when it hurts.

To start with, and without overgeneralisation, immigrant workers in this country have a slightly better ride than in most other countries. The reason is simple: they are doing jobs we are not interested in doing, too proud or too lazy to do. Many Mauritian workers would rather be unemployed than work in textile factories. For them, it’s backbreaking work for low pay. So, there is no resentment towards the hard-working, starving, nimble hands which fold our shirts. As it happens, every time these workers sneeze, thousands of Mauritians rush to attack the doctors for not treating them. If protecting the most vulnerable people of our society is commendable, here we are dealing with a different issue.

The incidents which the Bangladeshi workers have engaged in this week are not simply peaceful protests against their low pay or poor working conditions. They are manifestations of industrial anarchy which have set a precedent. We are talking about violent protests, picketing, attacking colleagues and setting fire to property. More than the violent acts, it is the consequences of these acts on the performance of the company which has had to close for three days, thus jeopardizing the jobs of other Bangladeshi and Mauritian workers alike which should not be tolerated. So the fact that the ring leaders were deported with no delay is understandable and is the only way to restore some order and send a message against illegality.

But we are not safe from other violent incidents because we have not attacked the root of the problem. On the one hand, there are some unionists, self-appointed as the messiahs of the foreign workers in this country, who are shooting in the dark, giving half-truths and unchecked information. On the other hand, there is a ministry of labour which has become so allergic to journalists that accurate information is impossible to trickle through.

The issue of overtime which was at the heart of triggering the violent incidents has to be resolved once and for all. There is no company which ‘creates’ overtime for the convenience of the workers. Overtime is dished out to the workers when there are sufficient orders to make it profitable for the company. So, it cannot be something guaranteed beforehand or that the worker can ask for at wish. The unionists who are wallowing in demagogy would do the workers a great favour by rationally explaining that to them.

Times are tough and they are tough for everyone. The industry is facing intense competition. We naturally condemn the employers whose attitude is one of exploiting or exporting the workers. But we could do with some more rational thinking and patriotism to keep our people employed. No country should allow anyone – least of all foreigners – to take the law into their own hands.

By the people, for the politicians 22 August 2013

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on March 22, 2014

History, they say, does not repeat itself. Rubbish! Pay a little visit to our paradise and you will find out just how many times it does. And just when we think there is something new out there, we realise we’ve been taken for a ride.

The White Paper about electoral reform which everyone with a short memory is awaiting with bated breath is no exception to the rule. It is the same old story of politicians thinking about how to get to or remain in power while pretending to be interested in furthering democracy for the benefit of the people.

Yes, the White Paper will come out soon enough – that much we are prepared to believe. And the prime minister will announce it with a gentle if superior look. Sort of Moses gazing at a sceptic after the Red Sea opened. But I would be very surprised if it contained anything that is genuinely aimed at getting us to play a more participative role in the running of this country.

The debates which will follow and the negotiations which will lurch into motion will be eerily similar to the ones we have had in the past and will be about anything except furthering our democracy. In fact, even before the White Paper has come out, the Remake has already – unwittingly perhaps – given us a taste of things to come. “The MMM should not be duped by the Labour Party”. Really? We thought this was about the people of this country! Sorry for misunderstanding!

Real democracy is about choice. Something we do not currently have. The first thing which should go is pre-election alliances. Cassam Uteem dropped hints about that this week in a radio interview. Every political party should face the electorate on their own strength – or weakness – and let the people decide who they want to be governed by. Having parties which share nothing except self-interest shoved down our throats defeats the whole purpose of democracy. Worse, pre-election alliances – without fail – are based on a sick ethnic logic which no Mauritian should accept.

Then the game of musical chairs should be stopped. We should no longer have non-descript MPs bargaining their way into high positions by crossing the floor and others acquiring illegitimate powers simply by threatening to go to an opposition all too eager to turn them into the best thing since sliced bread.

The Best Loser System should not be a negotiable condition. Although we are not naïve enough to believe that eliminating it would change our archaic mentalities, keeping it in our constitution is a form of legal acceptance which we can no longer afford.

The number of mandates for ministers has to be limited and those who have occupied positions at the helm of the country and are already drawing a pension from the state should not be allowed to go back into politics. In other words, new blood should be allowed to flow into the veins of our antiquated country.

Will the White Paper contain reforms along these lines? Will the opposition be looking out for this kind of reform or will it be happy to allow the important issues to drift along as before as long as each one gets their boutte? Will we end up with a system worsened by a disproportionate number of MPs paid from public funds? And finally, are we really heading for more democracy? In that too, history repeats itself: Arrete rever kamarade!

Scrooge meets La(r)gesse 14 August, 2013

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on March 22, 2014

Nobel Prize Committee members, look no further this year! We have a few nominees here who deserve your full attention. In fact, you will be spoilt for choice. And they all shone these last two weeks.

One of the most serious contenders for the prize is none other than the person who, until last week, was the vice-chancellor of our university. We say until last week because he was dismissed by the University Council without being given the opportunity to talk about his achievements. Our sister publication – l’expressDimanche – offered him a forum to talk about what he had done over the one year plus that he spent at the helm of the university. And he did. Apart from “introducing some new courses and proposing 34 research projects”, his achievements can be summed up in a few words: saving money, instilling discipline and modernising the university. The details of these – as furnished by the professor himself – can be summed up as follows:

1. The ex-vice-chancellor saw it as his job to supervise everything that was going on at the university in the minutest details. He – by his own admission – got involved with the gardeners when they were cutting trees and made sure the university was not being swindled out of a huge sum of money like Rs25,000 (US $800) because the gardeners had cut only two trees and claimed for three. Now, that is what we call good management skills and an excellent use of the vice-chancellor’s time.

2. The ex- vice-chancellor – again by his own admission – even supervised the toilet paper situation. Naturally, who would leave such matters to unqualifi ed people like cleaners? One could not take that chance!

3. For instilling discipline, student functions had to end by 9pm. You can’t allow 20 and 30-year-olds to stay on campus until midnight, can you? It’s not as if we – perish the thought! – were trying to have an active campus where there are 24-hour activities like it is in some other parts of the world. That would be against the spirit of discipline. Students have to go home early enough to catch their bed-time story and say goodnight to their parents. And it is in this way that our university is being modernised.

If our vice-chancellor’s record does not impress you, here is another nominee: Ashish Seeburrun. In our opinion, he is equally deserving. Think about it: the chap is so generous that he thinks of those who are less privileged than him – like Thierry Lagesse – and shows such largesse towards them that he lends them a Rs16 million car to use as they wish. We challenge you to fi nd a more generous person.

You may just as well choose to give the prize to Thierry Lagesse himself for his own largesse. For, in spite of his hardship – the poor guy could not even afford a Rs16 million car, shame, shame, shame! – he lends Ashish Seeburrun the sum of Rs11 million. Now, that is what we call selfl essness or even self-abnegation. The Tibetan monks could learn some very valuable lessons from him.

We are fully aware of the difficulty of choice and the above shortlist is not made in any particular order. We leave it to you to make the final decision. Good luck to you and may the best candidate win.

A horror scenario July 30, 2003

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on March 22, 2014

The minister of education’s announcement, reported in l’express this week, that he would like to set up special schools for the gifted is ill-advised, inappropriate for our society and does not augur well for the children of this country. It is a mistake that no pedagogist should remain insensitive to, least of all condone.

One should not be lulled into complacency by the fact that these types of schools exist in other countries. As a matter of fact, where they do exist, there is still a polemic about the means used to test kids to decide who is a quarter of a mark more gifted than others and who is not and how to differentiate between gifted children and those who are merely talented. The arbitrary nature of deciding which pupils are so gifted that they are funnelled into an elite school is still being questioned. And, pedagogically speaking, what exactly makes a child ‘gifted’ anyway? Is the fact that they scored above 90% on some standardised tests
that measure verbal and non-verbal facility enough to decide that they should be able to sustain the pressure of a specialised curriculum? The measure for defi ning giftedness – as any pedagogist knows – is narrow and can be manipulated through test-preparation programmes.

But even if these types of schools were working in other countries the way they should be, we should remember that our society is different. There are few other countries where the Certificate of Primary Education results are the subject of extensive cocktail, dinner and family gathering conversations. There are not many countries where seven-year-olds sit in garages and classrooms to be force-fed test papers which would help them secure a seat in a star school. Worse still, some parents have now started a new trend: getting their children to take private tuition with children who are one class above! I’ll leave you to imagine the psychological consequences of that.

As if having to compete for star schools at such an early age was not bad enough, now we are offering parents who make of their children’s achievement a question of ego, the possibility to put them under even more pressure to secure seats in the coveted programmes of the ‘gifted’. It will then not be a question of being gifted but one of becoming ‘gifted’ or being forced into the category of the ‘gifted’. And from that point, there is only one step to the institutionalization of special private tuition classes to churn out ‘gifted’ pupils. We will leave our cynicism aside today and not talk about those who will be connected enough to have ‘gifted’ children.

If Mr. Bunwaree is serious about improving education, how about looking at those who are not gifted enough and reducing the failure rate. How about just making our schools better for everyone? How about a better infrastructure with cleaner playgrounds and toilets? How about improving the quality of curriculum and instruction for everyone? If some of our kids are too gifted and aren’t academically challenged enough in school, they can have more time to enjoy life and be like everyone else. I hope this idea of segregating them is nipped in the bud. There is enough segregation in our educational system as it is. Let’s not start something we will one day come to regret.

In the eye of the beholder August 6, 2003

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on March 22, 2014

Let’s start on a positive note: Robin Sharma’s presence at the Labour Party youth congress hit the spot. It managed to reinvigorate the young and the not-so-young. Nita Deerpalsing’s attire may have elicited different and varying social media commentary and may or may not have been the right choice – who are we to judge someone’s taste and sartorial appropriateness? – but she did look young and reinvigorated. The picture was completed by the casually-dressed prime minister who strutted onto the podium in typical American fashion and answered questions from the young audience in what they felt was a humble and appropriate way. As for the guest speaker, if there is another one million Robin Sharma’s out there looking for Mauritian citizenship, please give us excess of them. We are badly in need of motivators.

However, the prime minister should have resisted the temptation to take another dig at journalists and put all the blame for the perception of crime squarely on their shoulders. And let’s please stop thinking that we are unique. The perception of crime being at odds with the official statistics and the reality on the ground is not exclusive to us and we should stop fretting about it. The findings of the Crime Survey for England and Wales, an annual analysis of crime figures, showed a very similar trend: crime is going down – murder has dropped by 17% to a 20-year low – but public perception is that crime in the UK is much more prevalent and is out of control. And this is not entirely the journalists’ fault.

When dealing with the perception of crime, we cannot limit the debate to violent crime. While this may have decreased, other types of crime like domestic burglaries and street thefts have increased. And that is what the perception is based on.

Street crime, house burglaries and anti-social behaviour in general are far more likely to fi re the public imagination than other more violent crimes. They create a surge in anxiety, make the population feel unsafe and threatened on a daily basis.

That has nothing to do with journalists. Naturally, when people start becoming nervous about anti-social behaviour and crime close to their own homes, the press, the world over, gives them the stories they relate to. And the opposition jumps on the opportunity to tap into the public fears to claim that society has become more violent than it would have been had they been in power. That is part of the game. It is not the root of the problem.

The police should not be comforted by thinking that it is the press’ fault that the nation feels insecure. They should pull their socks up and target burglaries in an efficient and coordinated way. There is no point going after thieves if the bigger thieves who are buying their loot are let off the hook.

If the police do their job properly, we will have no stories to sell. And we genuinely wish they could drive us out of business.

One for the road 25 July, 2003

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on March 22, 2014

We thought we had seen and heard it all on our paradise island. What with those who suddenly turn into a vegetable because they refuse to face the law to answer for their crimes and those who take advantage of an incident to make some money outside the law. The new trend Richard Duval has set and his ingenuousness, however, beat his predecessors flat out.

But let’s fi rst give the devil his due: in these hard times, we really owe him a thank you note for the levity he has provided us with. At least we can have the good and hearty laugh we haven’t been able to have for a long time. And, let’s also thank him for the good news he has brought to all the rotten and murderous drivers who are endangering the lives of other road users. The excuse is ready: ‘we have just taken Benylin cough mixture’. Please stock up before pharmacies run out.

Now let’s look at what happened: Richard Duval’s big Berline – not sure whether it was paid for by taxpayers’ money or not but the chances are it was – hit a concrete barrier. We are grateful that it wasn’t a human life. But it could have been. That he exercised his constitutional right not to submit to a breath alcohol detector check when he was caught fl at-footed is not the problem. We cannot blame him for that. He will have to face the consequences of ‘failure to provide’ which are usually more severe than that of being over the prescribed alcohol limit. Presumably, a person fails to provide a breath sample only if he knows he is above the prescribed limit.

He then offered a series of reasons – some might say lame excuses – which sound like those of a school kid who did not do his homework. First, he claimed that he suffered from asthma. If he did, he would know that asthma would not make him unable to blow into the breath alcohol detector anyway. As a matter of fact, in patients with airfl ow obstruction, the alcohol concentration usually decreases as the volume expired increases. So that would have likely played in his favour. And what about a blood or urine test for that matter? He apparently refused that too.

Later, the reason behind his refusal changed to accommodate his fear of contracting hepatitis, before he suddenly remembered that he had taken a cough mixture containing a high concentration of alcohol. And the police, fully aware of the implications of refusal to provide a breath sample, allowed him to continue his drive back home. It is fortunate that the cough mixture did not result in him hitting a human target this time. In a system where some highway rules are newly written, hotly disputed and poorly understood, Richard Duval may have set a very dangerous precedent and given a readily-available excuse to those wishing to abuse the system.

I don’t know which glass Mr. Duval is served his syrup in but I genuinely think its size should be adjusted.