Saturday, January 13, 2007

The inhumane shackling of the poor to life long poverty

from Le express

This analysis denounces the high prices that are worsening the burden of the poor. In the meantime, the middle and upper classes are enjoying decreasing costs on what can be called luxury products.

By R.A.J.

Life for the poor in Paradise Island has always been tough; their impecunious condition combined with a predominantly snobbish attitude by the better off towards them has almost turned them into social outcasts living in parallel worlds to those lucky enough to enjoy a better standard of living. Poverty has become a contagious disease shrouded with superstitious nonsense that has persuaded the well off that contact with the poor may contaminate them and therefore damage their chances of accruing further pointless wealth.

Mauritius is rapidly becoming a two-tier nation and the extremes of wealth and income inequality have never been more glaring. The middle classes continue to complain despite enjoying a fiscal largesse from the government that is not in existence anywhere else. We live in a topsy-turvy world where the more money you have, the less you fork out for goods and services that the less fortunate have to pay in full.

Promotion in Paradise Island entails not only a hefty hike in your salary but an increase in allowances that the new salary was originally meant to cover. No civil servant above a certain rank will ever pay any duty on a car bought for his own use that someone on a lower salary is compelled to; and the civil servant feels hard done by and resents the army of political failures who win the lottery at every general election by failing to get elected or even obtain a ticket to stand as candidate. The political failure becomes a social «success» overnight through his appointment by the new government as chairman or general manager of one of the numerous «Authorities» or «Commissions» that litter this green and pleasant land. This entitles him as of right to a stupendous salary topped up with at least three months bonus every year, a top of the range limousine completely free of charge, with a driver to serve the dual purpose of contributing to the image of achievement and prestige that is totally at variance with his abysmal level of competence, and of ferrying his wife around during her arduous week of shopping and more shopping. On top of that, he is entitled to numerous travels at first class to various exotic locations in the world and a princely expenses allowance that he gets in advance and which he can spend in any manner that he sees fit. He calls these touristic jaunts «missions» and the allowance of at least Rs 15,000 per day, «per diem», as if the fanciful language and Latin translation will make this deeply immoral self indulgence more palatable for the rest of us subsidising the regal lifestyle of this moron.

Governments come and governments go, but not one of those politicians elected by us to run the country properly has the moral backbone to target public subsidies at those who truly need them. Opposition parties become experts at playing this game of charade where «missions» by those in power are vociferously condemned without any guarantee that they too will not behave like pigs in the trough of the unaccountable waste of public money, should we decide to elect them to power at the next elections. The political atmosphere until the next elections will be filled with the putrescent invective of the opposition decrying the millions of rupees wasted on inconsequential «missions» by third rate politicians and their mangy, contemptible entourage, and how this lot is more prone to the boir manzer scandal that did so much damage to the reputation of the previous government. But we will never hear Bérenger, Jugnauth, or any opposition politician telling us what exactly they will do to stop the immoral waste of public money on useless missions or the appointment of idiotic political friends to positions that demand a modicum of intelligence and savoir-faire. Would they, for example, impose a moratorium on all missions apart from the very few that demand our presence as a nation? Would they impose a condition on all per diem allowances that they will only be given on production of receipts for the actual expenses incurred? Would they remove the filthy hands of politicians from all appointments and allow a presumably accountable body like the Public Services Commission to pick and choose the best candidates on vocational and intellectual merit and not on political or family affiliation as Chairpersons-General Managers of all parastatal organisations? Would they make it a criminal offence for any politician to contact the police with the sole aim of obstructing their inquiries or influencing them to ignore any criminal activities by their supporters?

Extravagant lifestyles

The answer to all the above questions is unfortunately no. Our politicians’ idea of servi nou pei is simply this: obtain power by any means possible in order to maintain or exceed the extravagant lifestyles of their opponents. This partly explains the problems between Bérenger and Jugnauth; they are not fighting over the best way to make this country prosper or to lift tens of thousands of our citizens out of poverty. They are fighting over who amongst them two should become our Prime minister. And if that is their only priority, then the electorate will do well to choose a less self-centred, rabidly ambitious individual to lead Paradise Island than either of these two.

The last budget has been very good for the middle and upper classes; they pay less tax now and that nice Mr Sithanen has even made it possible for them to buy a luxury car at a much reduced price. For the swelling legions of the affluent, it may well be the best of times; it is hard to think of any period in our history when they have done any worse. But the disposable incomes of our poor continue to fall at an alarming rate and it is now almost impossible for anyone caught in the poverty trap to legitimately improve his standard of living.

It is a bad time to be poor, especially when prices seem to be increasing on a daily basis. The poorest spend most of their incomes on food and gas, which means that inflation affects them far more than the privileged middle classes. And they pay tax all the time, as Value Added Tax is imposed on all the bare necessities that they need on a daily basis. Unlike many from the middle classes who have for years simply forgotten to complete their tax returns; they have turned amnesia into an art form and as the weapon of choice in their criminal determination to refuse to pay any income tax.

Sudhamo Lal, the Director General of the Mauritius Revenue Authority (MRA), recently asserted that «There are many professionals who do not declare reasonable income. We intend to look at them. About 50 % of the self-employed do not fill the Income Tax Returns». Jewellers are apparently too mesmerized by the glitter of gold to consider making a contribution to the national cake; many of our «learned friends» are too busy making a lot of money defending criminals to realize that tax evasion is a criminal offence and more than one in four barristers and solicitors have paid no taxes at all for many years – no wonder many of them refuse to give receipts for the work that they claim to have done ! A large proportion of supposedly law abiding citizens, like doctors, dentists, and accountants, apparently find the completion of tax returns forms too onerous a task and have simply failed to pay any taxes for years. Many teachers have claimed that they make only Rs 50,000 a year from private tuition, which is equivalent to tutoring a maximum of 10 students a month; one can therefore only conclude that the armies of school kids leaving many teachers’ houses at hourly intervals are his nephews and nieces working on a strict rota system to pay their respects and inquire about the health of the «uncle» each day !

Perhaps the best illustration of the lack of concern for the poor is the latest, baffling, action by the Automatic Pricing Mechanism (APM), which ought perhaps to rename itself the Authority for Pleasing the Middle classes. When the whole world is complaining about global warming and climate change, Paradise Island becomes the ONLY country to reduce the price of petrol by a massive 20 % and diesel by a not inconsequential 12,25 %. It is now cheaper to buy a litre of petrol for a car than the corresponding amount of cooking oil for food; it is comparatively cheaper to run a luxury than to buy something that we all need for day to day living and which does not cause any damage to the environment. The middle classes can live without their cars if they could muster sufficient motivation to get off their fat arses and walk for a change; but the poor have no choice but to buy cooking oil in order to prepare their food.

Subsidise the poor

A half decent and caring government would have insisted that petrol and diesel prices should at least remain unchanged and the resultant savings used to subsidise the poor for their purchase of cooking gas and other basic necessities. Instead, we have politicians who are only interested in short term actions designed for demagogic purposes and which are environmentally unfriendly, ethically questionable, and entirely against the national interest.

But what can you expect when we have politicians who are so stupid that they cannot see the glaring contradictions in their statements? Last month, Bérenger, Jugnauth, and their opposition underlings were all foaming at the mouth about the iniquity of supposedly high petrol prices in Mauritius and the seasonal reduction in oil prices on the world markets. At the same time, they were urging the government to purchase a copy of the Al Gore film-documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, so that the MBC could show the public the effects of global warming caused by the excessive use of fossil fuel mainly by…mo-tor cars!

The poverty paradox in Paradise Island now manifests itself in two ways: (a) those who have nothing but keep quiet and who listen with increasing incredulity to politicians and trade unionists claiming to represent them and promising to do everything to alleviate their poverty, and then ending up doing nothing apart from filling their own pockets (b) a bloated middle class which has garnered the market for government subsidies and always wants more without making any sacrifices for the general good. From taxi drivers, bakers, and dholl puri sellers who increase their prices every time petrol goes up but suddenly find that the need for spare parts prevents them from reducing their prices when petrol goes down, to teachers, accountants, lawyers, etc who have refused to pay any taxes for years whilst greedily grabbing a duty free car at the first opportunity, and enjoying a free health and educational services.

In Mauritius, the less you have, the more you pay as a result of inflation and government and fiscal policy; basic humanity and decency demands that subsidies should be targeted to items that everyone needs but the poor can hardly afford and not to the luxuries that benefit the few.

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