The Ombudperson for Children, Rita Venkatasamy, says in her annual report made public in an 11 October gathering before representatives of the state and people who had submitted complaints, that “Asbestos houses in all EDC estates across the country should be replaced with safe and sustainable houses that are affordable to residents who do not have the finances to build a house to live in.” She adds that “Asbestos panels that are lying around or are being used unsafely in all EDC housing estates should be disposed of.”
This adds further weight to the street demonstration the Friday before when people from the Joint Committees of LALIT branches and 50 local housing Estates protested for the second time. The first demonstration was held on 6 July. (Both can be viewed in films on the “Video” section of our site. Visitors can also go to the Audio section, and to the “MORE” button on the News section.)
People from a number of the EDC estates and LALIT representatives were present.
Increasing pressure has led to Environment Minister Sinatambou finally responding to the voices of the people living in asbestos housing. He had said that it was not because of the demonstrations that “certain people” are having that he is making these statements. He also accused “certain people” of stirring panic. What could be more a cause of anxiety than being left in a house you own but cannot demolish while you know it has serious health risks? And the fault of people living in this untenable situation is that of Government.
Anyway, the Minister made a number of announcements (see LALIT website audio and video clips):
1. There is something of a timetable, 100 houses will be demolished this year, 100 next year, and 100 the year after. This, LALIT says, is far too slow. The Government itself estimates some 2,000 asbestos houses remain, and in 20 years these will be reduced to nothing but dust fibres, the most dangerous state asbestos can be in.
2. Government will assure the removal of the panels. This, LALIT says, is essential, as no-one but the state has the spacesuits and other gear necessary for safe demolition and the know-how for safe disposal.
3. Government will give the family concerned an allowance of Rs5,000 per month while their new house is being built.
4. Those who fit the means test will get NEF-funding (75% of cost) for their new house.
5. Those who do not fit the means test, Government does not yet know what it is proposing. At least the Government has said it does not yet know. We hope it gets to know fast.
6. In response to the demand for a local “desk”, the Prime Minister has set up Citizens Support Units in the 35 Citizens Advice Bureaus in the country, and they will follow people’s personal situation with regard to where the Government has got to.
In fact, demolitions have slowly begun. At the same time, people living in asbestos housing are going to the CABs for their ticket number in the Citizens’ Support program.
LALIT branches have been and are holding a series of some 40-50 local meetings to report on the Minister’s stand, the Ombudsperson’s Report, the receipts given to those who submitted letters to the Prime Minister after the street march, and on the strategy ahead so that the Government does not once again forget about the problem.
In the Ombudsperson’s Report, she gives a systemic analysis of the right to housing. We will quote the full text of the Ombudsperson’s “Findings” on Asbestos, but not all the analysis. But we suggest anyone interested read the whole section on Housing, and the entire report at:
Alongside the mobilization by LALIT Joint committees on asbestos there was also the Joint Committee with Richelieu inhabitants who live in houses without proper uprights. They had also, together with LALIT, put in a complaint alongside the asbestos complaint.
SUMMARY OF OMBUDSPERSON FOR CHILDREN FINDINGS ON HOUSING
6.5 Summary of findings
The findings of this investigation are synthesized by the different areas of concern that emerged, namely housing conditions, health issues and education.
6.5.1 Housing conditions
• The housing systems in all the localities, especially Richelieu and Rose Belle EDC are not responsive at all to the basic requirements of a safe ‘home’ where children and their families could evolve decently.
• In Richelieu, the constructions are faulty, with blocks and concrete but without the support of columns.
• Some houses even appear on the verge of collapse.
• The houses look like ‘sieves’, with water seeping through the cracks and leaving families to remain in appalling wet conditions.
• With heavy rains, the leaky houses become even more uninhabitable.
• Babies and children living in these environments are constantly exposed to damp and mould, and they may face physical injury from pieces of concrete falling off.
• Slippery floors are a constant hazard.
• Electric installations are exposed to the water and residents face elevated risks of electrocution.
• Food and school books are recurrently damaged by water.
• Plywood furniture does not resist the water damage and have to be thrown away.
• People make use of big plastic dustbins to store their clothing to keep them from becoming wet.
• Many households place several types and dimensions of buckets and containers in different corners of the house to catch rain water on beds, chairs, the floor, and on top of electric appliances such as refrigerators, televisions and washing machines.
• The asbestos houses are made of asbestos panelling, that is, a two-layered sheeting used for roofing or siding of houses, one on the outside, and one on the inside, with an empty space between the two. This means that asbestos fibres from between these two panels can still float out of the empty space and get into the house.
• Additionally, in many of these houses, the asbestos panels have cracked, are partly broken and/or have become friable (or easily crumbled), thus exposing children and adult residents to even more health and life hazards. There are some occupants of asbestos houses who have had the means to replace asbestos panels with block and concrete material. A portion of these panels have been disposed of by local scavenging services. Some EDC inhabitants have noted that no special protective suits were worn by the workers. Some asbestos panels are still lying around in peoples’ yards or in unused land on the estate. Other locals have constructed border walls adjacent to the streets with these panels where children usually play. This means that the inhabitants of all the EDC estates, including children, are exposed in different ways to asbestos contamination within the community.
6.5.2 Health issues
Within such dangerous and poor housing conditions, it is not surprising that a lot of children experienced different health issues. Several children suffer from fever and chest- or lung-related problems. This is mainly due to the presence of asbestos within the houses, the lack of hygiene, the dampness in rooms and air pollution. Some people reported that they have been diagnosed with cancer as a result of being exposed to asbestos for long periods of time. Moreover, living in cold, damp housing can have an impact on children’s mental health, increasing their chances of experiencing stress, anxiety and depression. In conditions of rainfall, the children often sleep on wet mattresses and this is commonly associated with allergies, skin problems and sleep difficulties. Whether they live in deplorable housing conditions or in houses made of asbestos panels, children are at high risk of having acute and chronic health issues.
Different areas of child development including children’s capacity to learn and perform at school can be negatively affected by poor housing conditions. Children in inappropriate housing suffer from higher rates of poor health, both physical and psychological, and declines in life chances and educational achievement
Children living in bad housing also may feel marginalised, discriminated or bullied at school. They may manifest the distress of their living environment at school in the form of different behaviours including withdrawal, verbal and physical aggression, defiance, lying, stealing among others. They often have to bear
the label of ‘zenfans cités’ from their classmates, which can have a profound impact on their identity formation and self-confidence.
It is paradoxical that, while the need to improve social housing, including the dismantling of asbestos housing in pockets of poverty, appears in the priority areas of the 2016 Marshall Plan Against Poverty of Mauritius (Ramkhalawon, n.d.), there does not seem to have been much concrete action in this regard. It is commonly read in the local press (e.g. Le Mauricien, 2015) that the relevant authorities have so far provided little feedback on their asbestos removal projects and on the implementation of the recommendations made by the Truth and Justice Commission (2011). However, I wish to put on record the commitment of the Government to build more houses for people of lower income groups. These measures were announced in the Budget Speech of 2018-2019.
In line with section 6(e) of the Ombudsperson for Children Act 2003, I recommend the following:
1. There is a need to ensure that every child in all housing estates enjoys the right to a standard of living adequate for his/her physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development as stipulated in the CRC (UN, 1989).
2. Asbestos houses in all EDC estates across the country should be replaced with safe and sustainable houses that are affordable to residents who do not have the finances to build a house to live in.
3. Asbestos panels that are lying around or are being used unsafely in all EDC housing estates should be disposed of.
4. The existing faulty and dangerous houses in Richelieu should be urgently demolished and new houses rebuilt for the occupants while providing them with adequate temporary housing facilities.
5. The demolition and reconstruction of all faulty and hazardous houses in the other estates should be carried out while providing temporary shelters as proposed by the National Committee on Removal of Asbestos (GIS, 2015).
6. Houses should be built in ways that can withstand destructive climatic conditions.
7. Regular consultations should be held with NGOs, civil societies and the inhabitants who are affected by the problem of bad housing to provide them with timely feedback and collectively review the progress made.
8. In-depth research should be undertaken to assess the impact of bad housing on children in Mauritius.
6.8 Outcome and follow-up
On 01 June 2018, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Housing and Lands wrote to me informing that owners of EDC/ex-CHA houses who either wish to upgrade or reconstruct their respective housing unit can benefit from the following facilities:
i) assistance from the Ministry of Social Security, National Solidarity and Environment and Sustainable Development (Solid Waste Management Division) and the Ministry of Local Government and Outer Islands for removal and carting away of asbestos wastes;
ii) the owner may benefit from grant for the casting of roof slabs or for the purchase of building materials through NHDC Ltd, in cases of reconstruction of their housing units;
iii) subsidized loan facilities from the Mauritius Housing Company Ltd; and
iv) assistance from NEF for the construction of a housing unit as these occupiers are also owners of the plot of land on which stand their houses.
As a Welfare State, it is crucial for our country to review the status, development and implementation of the Marshall Plan of Poverty in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (UNDP, 2018). We have to tackle the underlying issues of inadequate housing in a proactive way. The negative impact of bad housing on child development and the fulfilment of their rights is no secret. We, as a nation, have to ensure that the current and next generation of our child population have access to the necessary opportunities to achieve their full potential and become constructive and productive citizens.