At a Press Conference held at Grand River North West, eleven of LALIT’s members welcomed journalists to an update on the housing problem, in particular the role of Government in the prolongation of dangerous exposure of people to asbestos housing. Lindsey Collen described the overall housing crisis as a “state of emergency” of overcrowding in so-called “houses shared by any number of heirs”, and said that within this “state of emergency”, there is the more acute “state of emergency” of people still living in asbestos housing within the general context of overcrowding and legal disorder as to who can live in the house amongst the heirs.
Rada Kistnasamy, presiding, introduced the LALIT members present, saying that the aim was an update on the campaign LALIT has been running to replace all existing asbestos housing, and to put pressure on Government to address the overall housing problem as well. He said the immediate context of asbestos housing and its dangers is a serious housing shortage in the working class, characterised by overcrowding and disputes amongst heirs over house-ownership resulting from the “forced heirs” Code Napoleon laws, and within that context, there is the more urgent issue of people living in dangerous housing including asbestos housing. He said that the broader context is important too: how, he asked, is land being used in this country? Is it being used to create jobs, for example? No. Is it being utilized to assure food security or, in the case in point, for housing for the people? No, and no. Is land being sold off by the rich to the rich? Yes. With Government subsidies, and wavers? Yes.
Rajni Lallah, speaking on our LALIT campaign up till now, said there had been two main phases in the struggle, the first in 2002, in which LALIT branches and Muvman Lakaz Committees, had mobilized people, and the second starting in 2017, structured around LALIT’s Joint Local Committees with inhabitants of Asbestos Housing in some 50 villages, and which has forced the Government to admit publicly that there is a national public health problem around asbestos housing. She handed the journalists a printed list of the 50 or so villages where such committees have been mobilizing for a year or so.
She said that the local committees had organized all kinds of independent actions – vis-à-vis MPs, District Councils and Village Councils, using petitions, local demonstrations, vigils and marches, and trips to visit Ministers in their Constituency consultations. There was also a formal complaint that LALIT lodged with the Ombudsperson for Children which led to a clear recommendation from Ms. Rita Venkatasamy that Government should replace this housing. In addition there have been two big street demonstrations in Port Louis, where people organized their own transport and banners, and came to the streets of the capital to march. This kind of march, attended by 90% of people from villages, who have never been to a demonstration before, has not been seen for over 30 years. And at the end of both marches, protesters handed over individual letters describing their family situation to the Prime Minister in order to make the demands, individually as well as collectively. Rajni said that people are asking so little – that the Government respect its own official communiqué of 2015 (the Soodhun Communiqué) in which it announced its big nation-wide campaign to replace all the houses. She handed a copy of the Communiqué with Government coat-of-arms and all to journalists present.
Lindsey Collen said that “There is a State of Emergency in housing in general, and within this state of emergency, there is another state of emergency, the dangerous housing people are still living in, in particular asbestos housing.”
She said that the Lepep Government elected in 2014 has been in free fall from very early on. This is what, to some extent, explains their pretence that the formal Soodhun Communiqué does not exist, never existed, and does not need to be referred to. The four Ministers concerned, she said, were Minister of Housing, Showkatally Soodhun, who resigned after at least three actions that warrant revocation as Minister; Minister of the Environment, Raj Dayal, who had to resign over the “bal kuler” scandal; Minister of Health, Anil Gayan, who caused havoc in the Health Ministry on the issue of suspending the Methadone program for those dependent on opiate drugs, inter alia, and the Minister of Finance, who was moved from his Ministry following publication of his dealings in gold. And the Government’s woes are not over.
Anyway, Lindsey said, after the first demonstration and letters to the Prime Minister, he just played dead. Like a possum. Same thing after the second. But around the second demonstration, the Government was forced to respond through other Ministers, Mahen Jhugroo, new Minister of Housing and Ettienne Sinatambou, new Minister of the Environment.
The latter came up on Radio and TV with the following, making no reference, of course, to the 2015 Soodhun Communiqué,
1. The Government will itself take responsibility for the demolition of the asbestos houses (It will move in with men in astronaut outfits for the job).
2. The Government will also, itself, get rid of all the asbestos panels.
3. The State already has money earmarked for demolition and getting rid of 300 houses made of asbestos, 100 in 2018, 100 next year and 100 in 2020. Note that he does not anywhere specify which houses. And we have so far seen only one or two demolished of the 2,000 Government said still exist. At the rate Sinatambou proposes, this will take the State 20 years. As Sinatambou knows, or should know, every additional day living in gradually degrading asbestos increases one’s risk of respiratory illnesses that are life-threatening.
4. He announced that people will be allocated Rs5, 000 a month as rent money, while their houses are being rebuilt.
5. About rebuilding, i.e. replacing the houses, look at how little he offers, Lindsey said:
-- Those who are poor enough to qualify National Empowerment Fund houses, will get them, and the NEF will construct them. What percentage of households concerned this plan will benefit, he fails to say. We estimate it is less than 10%, maybe less than 5%? It is for someone (if single) earning less than Rs2,900 per month, while even a Government universal old-age pension if Rs5,800 per month.
-- For the vast majority, he made the curious announcement, that “the Government does not yet know what it is offering.” This is at least, she said sarcastically, a clarification. We did not know that the State did not know what it proposes. Now, we can call on them to get to know, she said.
5. Meanwhile, Sinatambou said, the Prime Minister has created the Citizens’ Support Units (CSUs) in 35 different Citizens Advice Bureaux to help. Go, register there, he said.
We hear, since then, that there is some sort of basic “survey” that is being done as from this present week by the CABs. Perhaps this survey will enlighten the Government about the huge housing problem that lies hidden behind the State’s lying statistics. (Note: The Statistics lie, as LALIT has shown by a study in about 6 regions, because of the definition that Statistics Mauritius has resorted to, which seems aimed as masking homelessness. They ask if you pay rent, thus specifically hiding the problem of no housing for all those families living in houses belonging to so many “forced heirs” that if you divided it up, each family would get no more than a square metre.)
That is all Sinatambou offers. He says nothing about the Soodhun announcement in 2015 that he will launch a “grande projet d’envergure” in all the villages concerned that Finance Minister Lutchmeenaraidoo has Ok’d money for. What the Government has done with the announcement remains a mystery.
Lindsey Collen listed the 8 demands we now put forward to Government. The State must:
1. At once open an official Register of people living in overcrowded and conflicting situations (including those provoked by the forced heirs’ law), this Register will then give Government a way of knowing how many people are in housing problems.
2. At once put into action its 2015 official communiqué (the Soodhun communiqué) and demolish, remove the waste and replace the asbestos houses.
3. Put into action the October 2018 recommendations of the Ombudsperson for Children.
4. Publish a program outlining its work-plan for the demolition and reconstruction of the 2,000 dwellings. This must include the addresses of the houses, their number, their street, and their village.
5. Announce that one day a week, the CAB offices will inform people in their respective areas of the way progress is being made.
6. Meanwhile, the Health Ministry must at once plan and conduct screening for respiratory problems for all residents of asbestos housing.
7. Freedom of Information must be respected relative to the Addison Report on the health-related issues of asbestos (2002) – which is supposed to be public, but which the State is blocking. LALIT has had to put a complaint with the Ombudsman, which is pending, to try to extract a copy from the Ministry of Health.
8. LALIT appeals to all Village Election teams to put on their programs that they will put on-going pressure on the central Government to replace all asbestos housing.