At a “unique” press conference held on 18 September in a packed St Georges Social Centre, the Jugnauth Government was described by the LALIT members present as “in free fall”, “bluffing”, “lying”, “irresponsible” and “criminally negligent” over the asbestos housing issue. Delegates from the South of Mauritius main island, from the North, the West, the East and the Centre each gave witness to the Calvary they are traversing to the Press present, Le Mauricien, ION News, Top FM, a new publication called Zordi, and on-line news outlet Mauritius News.
“People are by the thousand left to live in what the Government itself describes as ‘toxic’ housing, asbestos houses sold off culpably by the State to working class families in the 1980s,” Rada Kistnasamy, presiding, said. The Press Conference was organized by the so-called “Joint committees” of LALIT neighbourhood branches and the inhabitants of housing estates in the same areas. All the committees from the 57 housing estates were to try to send delegates, if possible. Some 200 people from 32 or so of the estates had representatives present, and this was what made the press conference unique. They came in pairs and groups, some arrived in self-organized and self-paid-for mini-buses. Amongst other places, they were from the following housing estates: Ste Claire in Goodlands, Le Morne, Montagne Blanche, La Chaux in Mahebourg, Telfair in Moka, Henrietta, Argy, Bel Ombre, Riambel in Surinam, Balance Plaine Magnien, Poudre D’Or, Batimarais, Lallmatie, Bois Cheri, Sebastopol, Pamplemousses, L’Escalier, Tamarin, Souillac, Trou aux Biches, Grand Bay, Piton, Rose-Belle, Olivia, Cluny, L’Amoury, St. Hilaire, Langlois Plaine Magnien.
Lindsey Collen said that the Jugnauth Minister of the Environment had said in the National Assembly (so she was able to quote from Hansard and give the Press copies of the quotation), that while he would take care of the demolition of the 2,000 houses still left, speaking as Minister, “we are in the process of finalising how we are going to reconstruct houses; where we are going to reconstruct and what will be the modalities. That will be taken care of by my colleague, the Vice-Prime Minister, hon. Shawkutally Soodhun.”[i.e. the housing Minister] (Hansard of 17th November, 2015, No.40 of 2015). So, Lindsey Collen continued, what happened to the “process of finalising” how they were to reconstruct houses?
A Government would have to be in free-fall to now come and pretend afterwards that the commitment taken at the National Assembly by a Minister and written up inter alia in Hansard, had never been taken.
And so this is the bone of contention.
When the Government delayed putting this commitment into practice, this sparked the most recent movement for rehousing. People called for no more than a time-table for what government had promised to do. Hundreds of families on two occasions came to Port Louis for street demonstrations. Each family left a personal letter explaining their family situation. The Government did nothing.
But it does now come and pretend just this. And so it has proceeded by “bluffing” and lying. The Jugnauth Government just pretends, or lies about the fact, that Raj Dayal never took that undertaking as Minister in Parliament. Instead the present Minister of the Environment Etienne Sinatambou does a show of bragging that he will assure the “demolition of the houses and the carting away of the materials” as though that is a big deal. Then for reconstruction, he pretends mendaciously that that has always been each family’s responsibility. He pretends Government never ever took any commitment.
The only new action the Government has effectively taken is to block the Addison Report on Asbestos in Mauritius. LALIT member Rajni Lallah spoke on this. The Ministry of Health has hidden the Report from those living in asbestos housing. When this went on too long LALIT wrote to the Ombudsman. He, too, failed in his Constitutional duty to prevent this kind of stone-walling from civil servants.
Everyone knows that Sinatambou, also Minister of Social Security, offers the entire population means-tested little house under the Social Register of Mauritius scheme. Hardly anyone at present in asbestos housing qualifies for this. For any other housing reconstruction, the Housing Minister Mahen Jugroo is in charge. He also blithely pretends that his predecessor in this Government never took an undertaking to implement a “project de grande envergure” in a printed communiqué on VPM letterhead. Pure bluffing. Everyone knows that Mahen Jugroo offers anyone in the whole population NHDC houses. These are means-tested in the opposite direction: they test your capacity to be rich enough to make repayments plus have an up-front down payments ready. Hardly anyone concerned qualifies for this either.
So, the Government actually tells lies, pretending it has not made the undertaking to reconstruct.
Alain Ah-Vee gave LALIT’s demands: For the Government to replace the dangerous housing, and to do so fast, and with a published time-table. It is simple, he said.
A man who lives in an asbestos house and who was present, Pierrot Cangy, because of two family members with bronchial problems, said how recently he took up Sinatamou’s offer and had his house dismantled. There is nothing left but the skeleton of iron beams and the tin roof. He applied for the NEF plan that Sinatambou as Minister of Social Security (he has two ministries) offers. The letter he received last week said he did not qualify. So, he is homeless.
Five other delegates from housing estates in Goodlands, Mahebourg, Flacq, Surinam and Henrietta came to the microphone and gave speeches.