Hundreds of people participated in a housing demonstration in the streets of Port Louis yesterday 5 October, protesting against Government’s continued negligence about replacing asbestos housing.
Over 500 people were in the peaceful march chanting “Government Must Replace Asbestos Housing”. People in Port Louis all showed support for the demonstration, turning their heads and raising hands in approval, as people from the countryside marched through the capital with banners and colourful pancartes. 365 of those in the march – the exact number of days in a year – signed letters on the spot, letters that were then handed to the Prime Minister’s Office. The content of the letters had been prepared collectively over weeks of neighbourhood meetings.
The demonstration was organized by the “Joint Committees”, as they have become known. These are committees uniting local LALIT branches and the housing estates in the same area. This new decentralized form of organization has permitted each housing estate to hold neighbourhood meetings, confront local MPs, prepare its own Joint Committee local banner, and organize its own rendezvous at the bus stop or mini-van for the demonstration, in a completely self-sufficient way. Many hold local demonstrations in their area around the banners, to rally support from everyone in the locality, and calling for broader housing demands for all working class families, including single parents.
The demonstration took the form of a peaceful march that went along St Georges’ Street, via Barracks Street, to La Chausseé, and then to the Company Gardens, where there was a gathering. Three representatives of each of the four Regions (North, South-East, West, and Centre-East) then went and left the letters at the Prime Minister’s Office in Treasury Building. After protests from LALIT about the dismissive reception of letters last time by a security policeman at the PMO describing himself as a “scanning officer”, and the failure of the civil service Registry or proper representatives of the PMO to take reception, this time, although it was still curiously Police Officers doing the work, a decent receipt was signed and stamped “PMO” for each individual letter. This kind of proof is essential for the future. Half of the letters were from people who put on record their protest at the Prime Minister not replying to their last letter, and half were people who were submitting a letter giving full details for the first time.
The demands are simple: As in the July demonstration, the demands are:
- Since Government has announced it will replace all asbestos houses, it must publish a proper time-table, once and for all.
- Government must set up regional desks so people do not have to go all the way to Port Louis, or Ebène, just to find out where Government has got to in the process, once it starts.
And this time,
- Proper, systematic, health screening. The specific demands were taken from the protocol of what is proposed by the British Lung Foundation, on its site. The two letters will be uploaded on to our site under a separate title.
“The urgency of asbestos housing is evident,” Alain Ah-Vee said at the Marie Reine de la Paix Social Centre in St Georges Avenue, where hundreds gathered to sign the individual family’s letters the content of which had been decided in meetings over the past month, in the face of the Prime Minister not even replying to the previous letter submitted at the end of the first demonstration, on 6 July this year. “It is not just a public health issue,” he said, “but one that gets more acute with the passing of each day. Asbestos becomes more friable with time, and thus an increasing danger to peoples’ health.”
“This urgent problem,” Rajni Lallah said, “comes at a time when there is a background of over-crowded housing, and of the heirs’ houses, as people have dubbed them”, referring to the forced heirs Napoleonic laws in force in Mauritius. These laws leave families living in small housing units in the grips of acute feuds, often deadly family dramas. In fact, say an old man bought the asbestos house in the housing estate from Government in 1986, when Government began washing its hands of social housing under World Bank and IMF pressures. It was in his name. Say, he had five children. By the year 2000, when he died, the 5 heirs all had spouses and two or three children. So, the house began to be “heirs’ houses”. By 2018, some of these children have married and had children. The reign of the macho male often rules. People living there have fewer rights than a tenant. Government counts them as “home-owners”, all 12 or so of them – the five children, their spouses and their now adult children. “This leads to family conflict,” Rajni said, “and even to family fights that end in deaths.” Later one of the women present came up to Rajni, opened her hand-bag and pulled out a newspaper cutting. In it was an article about her family. One member had in fact stabbed another to death.
“The Government has been negligent. It has no time for working class and poor people, nor money for us,” Rada Kistnasamy said, “and yet Pravind Jugnauth has plenty of time to give huge hand-outs to those bosses who sell off agricultural land for real estate speculation to millionaires from all over the world. And this, the Government has money to subsidize. It subsidizes their projects – gives tax breaks galore, and sets up billion-dollar road schemes for the rich. When the price of sugar falls, Government has massive amounts of money to subsidize, essentially, the sugar-cane oligarchs, as it announced last week it would, once again, do.”
Kisna Kistnasamy explained how people are in a very difficult situation. “People are living every day in a situation of a public health menace.” She said how people cannot, themselves, individually dismantle asbestos housing without exposing themselves to even more danger, and even if they do demolish their own houses, they have then no safe way of disposing of the asbestos.” The Government’s recourse to NGOs in places like Rosebelle, and to bosses with the CSR funds in Riviere du Rempart is, in LALIT’s view grossly irresponsible. “Little children in Rosebelle, being created, ended up inventing games with the asbestos panels after demolition,” Lindsey Collen added, “pulling each other along on the roads, playing toboggan on the tarmac, thus literally spreading asbestos fibres into the air, completely inadvertantly.” LALIT is also aware of a brand new club being built by enterprising young men, unaware of the public health dangers, in one village in the same area, with the panels removed from asbestos housing, and left lying around.
There are reports on line as well as in all the mainstream newspapers except for Le Defi.