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Day 71 – Of Land and Houses

30.05.2020

One phase of the homeless people’s movement that LALIT members have participated in over the decades was called “Muvman Lakaz” – it was from 1992 to around 2003. It united people who did not have housing – some had taken up residence on State Land around Port Louis, Belle Mare, Souillac, Mahebourg, Pte aux Sables, you name it, others were already in lonzer, others still were being bulldozed off land. Yes, we barred the bull-dozers together. It was a chaotic movement. There was not even a kitty, so when money was needed it was raised by contribution on-the-spot, and spent well-nigh on-the-spot, too. Muvman Lakaz specialized in petitions, demonstrations, occupations and the like. At one point, after the toughest struggle, it was involved in actually getting families housed, when the Housing Ministry had no other way out but to negotiate. Anyway, a member of Muvman Lakaz was anyone in the movement.


One such member, known as Mao, had had experience in Court over being an illegal “squatter”. When the Magistrate found him guilty, and asked if he had anything to say before sentencing that might influence the Magistrate, this is what he said:


 “Votroner, kan Franse ti vinn Moris, zot ti pran tu later, diviz li ant Guvernman ek Franse partikilye. Zot ti zis pran li. Lerla Angle inn vini, inn fer lager, finn pran seki ti pu Guvernman Franse pu Guvernman Angle, inn apel li Crown land (Kowlenn), e finn les proprieter tablisman gard so later. Kan gayn Lindepandans, Guvernman inn pran later Kowlenn ar Angle, fer li vinn Steytlenn. Tu sa dimunn la inn zis pran later. Personn pa finn gayn tit skwater. Lerla kan mwa mo pran enn tipti but later Steytlenn, mo mont enn ti lakaz pu mo-mem, mo madam, mo trwa zanfan, mo lisyin ek mo sat, kifer mwa mo gayn tit skwater? Kifer mo gayn kes skwater?


[“Your Honour, when the French arrived in Mauritius, they took all the land, divided it between Government and individual Frenchmen. They simply took it. Then the British came, had a war against the French, took the French Government’s land for the British Government, called it Crown Land, and allowed the big landed estates’ bosses to keep their land. When we got Independence, the Government took over Crown Land from the British, called it State Land. All these simply took the land. None of them got labeled “squatters”. Then when I took this tiny bit of State Land, put up a little house for my wife, my three children, my dog, my cat and myself, why do I get branded a squatter? Why do I get charged with being a squatter?”]


Last night Prime Minister Jugnauth announced the end of the general state of lockdown from midnight tonight against the background of his Government moving to expel so-called “squatters”. So this, my second-last blog, will be on another leitmotif of these 71 blogs: housing as it relates to land.


As the lockdown ends, the tip of the iceberg of the housing crisis has peeped through into visibility for the media and the middle classes, in the form, once again, of a crackdown on squatters. This time it is people who have erected small structures in Pte aux Sables, Curepipe and Mahebourg, some who have taken land during lockdown to make ends meet by growing things or raising chicken.


As always, this kind of cruel crackdown highlights the hidden reality. It exposes the fact that there are tens of thousands of families living in already-cramped conditions in the villages, the site and the towns of the Republic in lakaz zeritye, so-called “heirs’ houses” – which means the Government counts them all as home-owners, while they have less rights and often less space than a tenant renting a couple of rooms. 


It highlights the two thousand families living in dangerous housing sold to them by a reckless State – those living in asbestos housing or houses without proper uprights. 


It highlights those living in precarious situations as tenants.


People in all these groups have for the past three years, since 2017, been organizing themselves with us in “Joint LALIT-Inhabitants’ Committees” in some 50 areas. We have held dozens of localized demonstrations, vigils, marches, and have held the two biggest street demonstrations in recent years, in Port Louis. But the State and the media can’t keep their minds on it for more than a few hours.


It takes a lockdown and people occupying land “illegally” for Steve Obeegadoo to act as if there is an emergency.


The emergency is the lack of housing.


The emergency is that, what with the stupid IRS-villa-projects, the price of land has gone so high that even the middle classes are now stymied.


As Mao says, you can’t then criminalize someone for finding a place to build a shelter. Where did the sugar estate owners get the land from? And the State, for that matter? The gods? (Here I advise the feature film The Young Marx that exposes the absurdity of criminalizing people who “ramas dibwa lor Kowlenn.”)


Obeegadoo’s housing plan needs to proceed as follows, simultaneously:


1. Open a Register in all areas for people in housing difficulties of any kind to enroll. This will include squatters and anyone with housing difficulties. We estimate it may reach 100,000 families.


2. On land requisitioned from the big estates, build houses available on a rental basis for those who prefer this – many families now want to avoid the “forced heirs laws” complications – with a legal framework similar to CHA to build and manage the housing, including its Tribunal. And including its special housing for single-parent families with half-rent. This is a real way to attack domestic violence.


3. All those living in dangerous housing (asbestos or without proper upright structures) must have the house replaced in situ with another house, as promised by the MSM Government itself, when Showkutally Soodhun was Minister. The Government must publish its time-table for demolish-and-build, site by site.  


4. The MHC and NHDC must be run as social services, not on the private profit model.


5. So that people can pay their rent or housing loan repayments new jobs must be created by the thousand in a new sector called “food production”, in which there will be secure jobs in the fields, on ships in fishing, in new factories for food preservation and processing, in transportation, marketing. For this, the Government will have to stop being cowardly and, in the interests of everyone, to force the sugar estate owners and other big land-owners to convert one-third, say, of their land to food production and to use their infrastructure for factories to preserve crops.


6. The housing crisis and the food security problem could also be tackled, as one, by government creating “agricultural villages”.


Minister Obeegadoo has failed, since he became Minister, to come up with the kind of massive housing plan that reality demands. Instead, he has, like other Ministers, made vague plans, talked about private sector involvement, sat on his hands until crisis loomed. 


We need to think big.


As the lockdown ends, let’s once again move into action on the combined fronts of:


- housing for all


- food for all, food security for the country


- secure jobs for all, thousands of new jobs in a new food sector that will be the basis for further economic plans.


And around this basic platform, let us mobilize to force the Government to act. If it does not, we will have to organize much more and the people do so, themselves. This will need creating new democratic structures, of course. So, it’s a lot of work ahead. Think big. Act big.


Lindsey Collen


for LALIT, a personal view.