When the new biometric identity card system costing some Rs 1.1 billion got introduced last year, everyone started asking the question “Why?”. Why would any government spend so much public money on such a needless exercise? Especially after the disastrous experience of biometric ID cards in the UK, Australia and even the US where parliaments and the people rejected the biometric ID cards and their centralised databases outright. LALIT's research on big capitalist interests in the new ID card system has started unravelling part of the answer.
In 2012, the Ramgoolam government instead of going through open tender procedures chose to sign a government-to-government agreement with the Singaporean government for the awarding of the big Rs 1.1 billion new biometric ID card system contract. Which meant that there was no bidding, no open tenders. The Ramgoolam government chose to hide behind a “non-disclosure clause” in the agreement and refused to answer questions in Parliament about what companies in Mauritius were going to get a share of the contract.
The MMM opposition leader, P. Berenger and other members of the MSM and MMM opposition in 2012 had started posing questions about this suspicious agreement and demanded that the agreement be made public. In July 2013, the new legal infrastructure for the new biometric identity card was passed in the National Assembly with a certificate of urgency – which meant that there was practically no debate whatsoever on the bill on the day it went through. The little debate there was in Parliament only served to outline that the MMM-MSM parliamentary opposition headed by MMM representative Alan Ganoo , had no fundamental “quarrel” with the bill (Berenger was absent due to cancer treatment at the time).
When Prime Minister Ramgoolam tried to justify why there had been no open tender procedures and why his government chose to award the new biometric ID contract to the Singaporean government, he said it was for two reasons. Firstly because Singapore has a reputation of being “above board”, and secondly for “security” reasons. LALIT's research has exposed what Ramgoolam understands by the words “above board”. What LALIT's research has revealed is that there are companies close to the Ramgoolam regime, state-owned companies and capitalists in the Mauritius Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI) that are profiteering from the huge Rs 1.1 billion ID card contract.
How did this happen? The Singapore Corporation Enterprise, set up by the Singapore Trade and Industry and Foreign Affairs Ministries was awarded the government-to-government negotiated biometric ID card system contract. The Singapore Corporation Enterprise formed a consortium specially designed for this project with two other Singaporean companies: CrimsonLogic and NEC Asia Pacific.
NEC Asia Pacific already had a partner in Mauritius: a company called Technology Management Services which is a subsidiary of British American Investment (BAI). BAI's Director and CEO was up to recently Saleem Beebeejaun, son of Mauritian Vice-Prime Minister Rashid Beebeejaun. BAI is now headed by the Rawat clan (1)
The second company Crimson Logic holds 40% shares in a consortium calledMauritius Network Services with a Mauritian partner called Maurinet Investment that holds the remaining 60% shares. Maurinet Investment is a joint venture between Mauritian state-owned companies holding 53% shares and the MCCI that holds 47% shares.
A third company whose name was quoted in Parliament, Valdus based in Goodlands in the North of Mauritius, is one of the Mauritian companies that got a sub-contract for carrying out the ID card conversion exercise. Valdus CEO has a reputation of being close to Prime Minister Ramgoolam.
Is all this crony business the real reason why there was no open tender for the big Rs 1.1 billion biometric ID card contract? Is this why a “non-disclosure clause” was included in the government-to-government agreement? To hide the Mauritian bourgeoisie's profiteering from the big contract? No wonder so many Mauritian companies offer the Prime Minister's Office's Mauritius National Identity Card (MNIC) the opportunity for its mobile units to come to their work-sites to get workers to take out the biometric ID cards.
As for the so-called “security” reason Prime Minister Ramgoolam alluded to, there have been two major incidents made public up to now that show just how seriously the MNIC unit takes “security”.
The first incident occurred in September-October last year when in the process of conversion to the new biometric id card system, a hard drive from the National Pension Fund Building containing data was reported to the Police as being lost. When this went public, the Prime Minister's Office came out with a press communiqué to state that the lost hard drive had not been lost!
The second incident occurred around a month ago: IT scientist Ish Sookun exposed how easy it was to get into the MNIC website. He was able to get into it and look at the names, ID numbers, e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and age of everyone who had written to the MNIC for more information. He was shocked at the low Form II-level security of the MNIC website. The MNIC reacted by deactivating that part of its website. It later made a feeble public statement to state that this incident did not concern the ID card central database, neither admitting, nor denying, nor explaining that there had been a security problem.
No political backing for MNIC
Strangely enough, there is no longer any Minister defending the MNIC project. Rao Rama hired to head the MNIC unit, has been left on his own to defend this project. Shortly after the new biometric ID card legislation was passed, Prime Minister Ramgoolam's sole public statement was that he “understood the reservations” of those who opposed the biometric ID card system. In October, Vice Prime Minister Beebeejaun lashed out at the first petition organised by LALIT signed by 18 organisations (and now that the big business interests hiding behind the opaque agreement, we understand what particularly upset him). Minister Chedumbrum Pillay for a while last year tried to defend the MNIC project a few times. Now it seems that political support in government for the new biometric ID card has trickled out.
Where we are now
It was only in September-October 2013 when opposition spearheaded by LALIT started building up that the MSM leader, Pravind Jugnauth initiated a legal challenge against the new biometric ID card. There are now three cases in the Supreme Court challenging the Constitutionality of the new biometric ID card system. The Ramgoolam-Duval government has blatantly chosen to ignore the Supreme Court cases and go ahead with the introduction of the new biometric ID card system.
Since October 2013, the leader of the opposition, MMM leader P. Berenger, realising the depth of opposition to the biometric ID card bill and its unpopularity as LALIT's campaign gained ground, started opposing the new biometric ID card system. Around a month ago, he demanded the destruction of the ID card's central database. Some two weeks later, he stopped talking about the new ID card system altogether as he started negotiating an alliance with Ramgoolam based on so-called “electoral reform” that constitutes one of the ingredients in the design of a new system of power-sharing between them.
Which brings us to where we are now with LALIT spearheading the campaign against the new biometric ID card system, with Parliament suspended while negotiations for an alliance between the leader of the Opposition and MMM leader Berenger and the Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Ramgoolam, with 3 Supreme Court cases challenging the Constitutionality of the ID card system still pending and with the Ramgoolam government imposing the new biometric ID card system on all the adult population threatening massive fines and prison sentences if they do not take out the new ID cards.
New phase in the struggle
Last month, a new petition organised by LALIT signed by 23 organisations marked a new phase in the struggle against the new biometric ID card system. There are now 5 specific demands being made to government:
1. To immediately suspend fingerprinting and biometric photograph procedures in conversion centres;
2. To destroy the central database just like the UK government did in 2010;
3. To deactivate the microchip contained in the new biometric ID cards given to some 550 thousand people who have already taken out the new ID cards;
4. To ensure that the use of the new ID card is limited so that it can only be used the same way that the old ID card was used;
5. To amend the law so that it is no longer compulsory to present an ID card to any officer;
(See http://www.lalitmauritius.org/viewnews.php?id=1587 for further information)
(1) Excerpt from Business Daily 2 June, 2014:
“Mauritian billionaire Dawood Rawat has joined the board of investment firm Britam in the latest directorship changes engineered by the Rawat business empire.
Mr Rawat, the largest investor in Britam with an 18 per cent stake worth Sh5.8 billion, joins his nephew, Moussa Rawat who was appointed a director of Britam in August and Tarun Ghulati, an executive of one of the Rawats’ business units, who joined the board in May.
The investor preferred to influence board decisions at the firm through former chairman Nicholas Ashford-Hodges, who was on Friday replaced by former head of public service Francis Muthaura.
The shake-up indicates a push by the Rawat family for deeper involvement in the management of the firm.
The changes have led to the exit of Saleem Beebeejaun, who was replaced as chief executive of British American Investment (BAI),the holding company of the Rawat business empire including its Britam stake.”